Johann Hari talks to Chris Evans about his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

Virgin Radio

24 Jan 2023, 12:15

Chris Evans and Johann Hari at Virgin Radio.

Trigger warning: Drug addiction

Author Johann Hari’s New York Times bestselling book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs has been adapted into a new audiobook.

The writer joined the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with cinch to talk about the book, which was originally published in January 2015. It examines the history and impact of drug criminalisation, often known as the War on Drugs. A new audio version, narrated by Johann, is out now.

Speaking about why he wrote the book, the author told Chris: “We had a lot of addiction in my family. One of my earliest memories is trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to, and I was too young then to understand why. 

“So, when I started working on Chasing The Scream, 10 years ago now, I think I was in that state, that a lot of people who love someone who's got an addiction problem are in, where I didn't know what to do. I didn't feel that anything I was doing was helping. I wondered if what I was doing was harmful. And I just felt completely lost.” 

He continued: “I just wrote a list of questions. It was, ‘What causes addiction? When did we start punishing people with addiction problems? What's the alternative to punishing people with addiction problems?’ And I remember thinking, ‘How can I find the answer to this?’. And I didn't realise at the start I'd have to go on this huge journey. I ended up travelling over 30,000 miles and meeting a crazy mixture of people, from a trans crack dealer in Brooklyn, who turned out to be one of the wisest people I've ever met, to a hitman for the deadliest Mexican drug cartel, who chopped up lots of people's heads - he's not the wisest person I've ever met - to the only country that's decriminalised all drugs with really striking results.”

The book is a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into eighteen languages. Johann said: “The thing that blew my mind was realising that almost everything I thought I knew about these subjects - and I had seen this my whole life - was wrong. Drugs aren't what we think they are. Addiction isn't what we think it is. The War on Drugs isn't what we think it is. And the alternatives to punishing people with addiction problems and drug users is not what we think it is. 

“If [we] get hit by a truck and break our hips, we'd be taken to hospital and they'll probably give us loads of a drug called diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin, it's medically pure heroin, it's much better than whatever we could score on the streets, right? It's the pure stuff. If your Nan's ever had a hip replacement operation, your Nan has taken a lot of heroin, right? If what we think about addiction is right, that it's caused primarily or totally, by exposure to the chemical hooks, what should be happening to all these people in hospitals, who are given heroin for sometimes quite long periods of time, they should be trying to score on the streets when they leave. This has been studied very carefully. It never happens. 

“I remember when I kept interviewing doctors about this and thinking, ‘That can't be true’. How could you have a situation where you have someone in a hospital bed, who's using a lot of heroin, pure heroin, they don't become addicted, and you've got someone in the alleyway outside the hospital shooting up, who does become addicted? I don't understand it.”

The writer said that he therefore interviewed Professor Bruce Alexander, “who did this experiment that really transformed how we think about addiction and had amazing effects all over the world.”

In the interview, the professor explained that the narrative that addiction is caused primarily by chemical hooks comes from a series of experiments from earlier in the 20th century. “You take a rat, you put it in a cage, and you give it two water bottles,” Johann said. “One is just water, and the other is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. And if you do that, the rat will try both the water bottles, and it will always prefer the drug water, and almost always kill itself by overdosing quite quickly. So there you go, right. That's our story. The rat tries to drug, it loves the hooks, gets more and more of them until eventually it kills itself makes perfect sense. 

“But in the 70s, Professor Alexander came along and said, ‘Hang on a minute. You put the rat alone in an empty cage. It's got nothing that makes life worth living for rats. All it's got is the drugs. What would happen if we did this differently?’. So he built a cage called Rat Park, which is basically like heaven for rats, right? They've got loads of friends, they've got loads of cheese, they've got loads of coloured balls, they can have loads of sex, anything a rat wants in life, anything that makes life meaningful to them is there in Rat Park. And they've got both the water bottles, the normal water and the drug water. And of course they try both. They don't know what's in them. This is the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, they don't like the drug water. They hardly ever use it. None of them use it compulsively, none of them overdose." 

He continued: “So you go from very heavy overdose rates when they don't have the things that make life worth living, to no compulsive use of overdose, when they do have the things that make life worth living. 

“And to me, this really helps us to think - and there's a lot of evidence this applies to humans, right? The core of addiction is about not wanting to be present in your life, because your life is too painful a place to be. Once you understand that, you can see why what we do is so disastrous, right? Because we've got this idea, ‘Oh, if someone's addicted, we need to kind of impose negative consequences on them. We need to impose pain on them, to give them an incentive to stop’. 

“But when you realise that pain is the driver, pain is the cause, right? And there's lots of different causes of human pain, of course. When you raise it, pain is the driver, you begin to see, it's not just that it doesn't work, it makes it worse.

“But also, the most important thing I took from Rat Park is realising the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, hugely valuable though that is to some people. The opposite of addiction is connection. And what was fascinating to me was to go to places that then built their whole approach to addiction around this.” 

Johann spoke about how, in the year 2000, Portugal decriminalised drugs, and when he visited the country 13 years later, “overdose was massively down, HIV transmission was massively down, street crime was massively down.’

He continued: “When you ban drugs, they don't disappear. What happens is they're transferred from the people used to control them doctors, pharmacists, to armed criminal gangs, and those armed criminal gangs are really violent, right? 

“The war on drugs creates a war for drugs where rival gangs fight each other, kill each other. It's an enormous fight, it causes a huge amount of violence.

“You want to know how much of that violence is caused by the fact we banned the drugs? Just ask yourself, ‘Where are the violent alcohol dealers?’ Right? Does the head of Smirnoff go and shoot the head of Heineken in the face?”

He told Chris: “I met Pablo Escobar’s son. He’s sort of my friend now. I think it's probably my weirdest friendship. He said to me, ‘The only thing my father ever truly feared was the legalisation of drugs’.”

Despite the difficult subject-matter within Chasing the Scream, its author said: “I actually left the book incredibly optimistic, and much better equipped to love my relatives and get help for them, when I realised, ‘Oh, if you just understand what's really going on, you can begin to solve this problem’. 

“For 100 years now, we have been singing war songs about people with addiction problems. And I realised we should have been singing love songs to them all along.”

Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days Of The War On Drugs is available now.

For more great interviews listen to  The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with cinch weekdays from 6:30am on Virgin Radio, or  catch up on-demand here.