Book review: Chasing the Scream (Johann Hari)

‘Chasing the Scream’ is an interesting and person-centred account of the war on drugs by covering its creation and modern implications, and the current movements toward legalisation or decriminalisation. The book is especially interesting as I am what Hari identified early on in the book as an ‘ivory tower’ researcher (although as a student, my tower is more veneer than ivory), as I am investigating the neurocognitive mechanisms of problematic substance use. Hari is critical of a biological perspective on problematic substance use as he outlines that the effects of drugs only provide a partial explanation of addictive behaviour. His account is both eye-opening and refreshing, and from my perspective as both a student and a teacher of psychology, presents a perspective of problematic substance use that is neglected far too often.

Rather than the typical attack on the war on drugs, Hari explores the impact it has had in the last hundred years through a series of stories. The story begins with Harry Anslinger, the first leader of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, driven to outlaw drugs through early personal experience. It sheds an interesting light on the start of global prohibition as rather than motivated by a fight to protect people from the harms of drug use, was seemingly motivated by racist paranoia. This leads to a series of modern perspectives on the war on drugs, from the tales of a New York street drug-dealer, to a Mexican mother wanting justice for her daughter caught up in the business of the cartel. However, the end of the book is more positive as another series of stories is presented, but this time the benefits of a progressive approach to drug treatment is outlined. This takes you on a trip from downtown Vancouver where a former addict helped push through life-changing government policy reform, to the wide-ranging benefits of decriminalisation in Switzerland and Portugal.

What makes this book so different and refreshing is the position Hari has taken. Rather than present another liberal call for wide-ranging drug legalisation, a critical analysis of the pros and cons is presented. Calling on the expertise of psychiatrists, psychologists, and front-line policeman, the evidence is presented as clear as possible, with a critical eye cast on each result. He rejoices at the success of reducing overdoses and HIV rates through decriminalisation in Portugal and Switzerland. However, with the scepticism usually reserved for scholars, Hari probes the results for potential weaknesses. Although decriminalisation has improved the lives of addicts, what effect could this have on children? Could legalisation create a free-for-all where you could buy crack from an ice-cream van? Through critical eyes, the pros and cons are carefully weighed up to create a carefully constructed account of the evidence rarely seen in popular science books.

On a final note, what is particularly interesting about Chasing the Scream is the author himself which, unknown to me until I had nearly finished the book, has had his own fair share of controversy (not to be outlined here). However, the implications of this experience has seemingly been influential in producing a wonderful piece of journalism. All the interviews that Hari conducted himself are available to listen to online for yourself, and the book draws upon meticulous notes and references that would make an academic proud.

Chasing the Scream is available in all good online and high-street book stores. Go out and buy it if you like the sound of it.

 

 

 

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