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Chasing the Scream

The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

By Johann Hari
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Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari
Synopsis

Chasing the Scream (2015) gives a riveting account of the first hundred years of the disastrously ineffective War on Drugs. Weaving together fascinating anecdotes, surprising statistics and passionate argumentation, Hari examines the history of the War on Drugs and explains why it’s time to rethink addiction, rehabilitation and drug enforcement.

Key idea 1 of 8

The War on Drugs was born in America and pushed onto other countries.

The effort to curb illegal drug use and crack down on dealers, otherwise known as the War on Drugs, has come to seem so natural that we’re unfazed by stories about major drug busts in the news. Stacks of confiscated money and drugs and weapons: we barely bat an eye.

But the beginnings of this “war” were surprisingly different from how it is carried on today.

As late as the early twentieth century, those drugs we’ve come to categorize as illicit were actually freely available in some form throughout the world.

For example, you could leave the pharmacy with a bulging bag of medicine that incorporated drugs like heroin and cocaine. A refreshing sip of Coca-Cola contained ingredients extracted from the coca plant, the source of cocaine, and fashionable department stores in Britain even sold tins of heroin for high-society women.

That all changed, however, in 1914, when the United States began prohibiting the sale and use of drugs. But why the sudden change?

The outbreak of WWI, combined with rapid industrialization, drove Americans to seek an outlet for the anxiety and aggression caused by their fast-changing world.

Drugs – tangible objects that could be destroyed – seemed the perfect scapegoat for the less tangible ills of modernity, such as class tension, displacement and changing customs.

But the eventual hard-line, worldwide prohibition of drugs was due to the concentrated effort of one man: Harry Anslinger, first chief of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics, from 1930 to 1962, and primary proponent of the War on Drugs.

During his tenure as Bureau chief, Anslinger noticed that drugs kept flowing into the US even as he zealously cracked down on them. He suspected that communists were deliberately smuggling drugs into the country, hoping to use drug addiction as a means of undermining America’s military and economic strength.

So, in the 1950s, he took his case to the United Nations, where, by leveraging American geopolitical dominance, he successfully convinced the other member nations to adopt prohibition policies.

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