Review: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
I can’t imagine a rational, open-minded person reading this book and not coming away with the conclusion that drug policy almost everywhere in the world is in dire need of reform. Hari helps us see drug users as human beings, and addiction as a complex phenomenon that goes well beyond the chemistry of the drugs involved. I deeply admire the empathy and compassion that went into this book, alongside years of effort.
It’s not a perfect book by any measure. Like so many journalists and popularizers, Hari wants to get to the simple conclusions and quotable soundbites. In doing so, he sometimes oversimplifies science (when he tries to quantify the percentage of addiction that is caused by the drug itself) and history (when he reduces the cast of characters in the drug war to a few notable individuals, such as Harry Anslinger).
The structure of the book as a whole works, but at times both the formulaic narrative (e.g., opening many chapters with a “rule of three” set of characters) and the frequent section jumps can be a bit jarring. Recent technological developments (e.g., Silk Road) aren’t mentioned yet. The effect of free market capitalism on drugs (alcohol advertising, the many shenanigans of the tobacco industry, etc.) is hardly touched upon. And don’t expect to get much in the way of explanations of how different drugs work, or what the research says on drugs like LSD or MDMA — turn elsewhere for that.
None of this distracts from the core message, which is really about the role addiction plays in our society, and how we respond to it. The evidence, while at times made overly quotable, is presented fairly; the success stories of reform are real, and the cost of the drug war is not in dispute. What Hari does do exceptionally well is to tell stories, rather than drowning the reader in statistics (the stats are there, where pertinent, but never dominant). The net effect is that this book will hit you emotionally, if you allow it to.
4.5 stars, rounded up - because the cause for reform continues to warrant urgent attention from any thinking, compassionate human being, and this book makes that case very well. Let’s hope Hari is right that we truly are in the “last days” of this horrible hundred-year-war.