“Chasing the Scream, the First and Last Day of the War on Drugs,” by Johann Hari

“It is a natural human instinct to turn our fears into symbols, and destroy the symbols, in the hope that it will destroy the fear. It is a logic that keeps recurring throughout human history, from the Crusades to the witch hunts to the present day.”

Chasing the Scream Cover

Chasing the Scream cartoon Black and WhiteTime to end the war on drugs


Discussion Questions:

1. Let’s start off with the most obvious question, did Mr. Hari convince you? Is his case sound? What are the flaws in his argument?

2. Do you find the ethnographic style of writing, in the Studs Terkel/World War Z vein, effective?

3. Does it surprise you that one of the strongest proponents for war on drugs is the organized crime industry? What about the fact that the prohibition laws were, and still are, at least partly motivated by racially-tinged hysteria (see also Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow”)? Or that the initial calls for prohibition were based on junk science, e.g., the “unspeakable sexual depravity” that marijuana use would unleash?

4. One of the more breathtaking portions is the tale of a punitive anti-drug regime in Arizona that took the life of Prisoner 109416–Marcia Powell–a forty-something crystal meth addict who in May 2009 was left outdoors in a metal cage for four hours in searing heat by prison officers encouraged to believe that addicts had rendered themselves subhuman. Are such actions consistent with the values and image that we wish associated with America? Has the War on Drugs corrupted our entire criminal justice system?

5. Many conservatives profess to believe in a limited government. Government should refrain from action unless the proposed course of action passes a cost/benefit litmus test. Is there a cogent argument that the benefits of drug prohibition exceed its cost? The United States is now the most prolific jailer in the history of the world. How do we enumerate the costs of imprisoning such a large portion of our population?

6. One common criticism of “Chasing the Scream” is Mr. Hari too often glosses over what the concerted use of particular drugs, particularly heroin and methamphetamine, entails. Are the book’s theme and underlying thesis undermined by this purported failing? Mr. Hari has had issues with plagiarism and other questionable conduct in the past. Does this color your impression of the book?

7. During alcohol prohibition, battles between organized crime and authorities transformed major cities like Chicago into chaotic and violent place. Mr. Hari makes a convincing case that this same cycle has engulfed vast swaths of Mexico. Would decriminalizing drugs reduce this level of chaos, or merely unleash a different form of chaos in the form of widespread addiction? If one advocates for the latter position, how can that stance be reconciled with the arguably successful examples of decriminalization in Portugal, Uruguay, and Switzerland? What about the fact that money once spent on law enforcement and imprisonment can now be channeled to rehabilitation and education?

8. The case studies, such as nicotine patch data and the “Rat Park” experiments, challenge the conventional belief that substance abuse is a chemical phenomenon. Did Mr. Hari make a convincing case that the pharmaceutical drug addiction theory is an incomplete, at best, model? Did you find validity in the “disease of loneliness” theory of drug addiction?

9. What steps, if any, should be taken to reform this country’s drug policies? What is your one “take away” from this book?

Drug Cartoon


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