Monday, April 6, 2015

Chasing the Scream

Journalist Johan Hari knows all the arguments against decriminalizing or legalizing drugs. He even agreed with a lot of them. In his book Chasing the Scream, he thoroughly examines them and comes out on the side of Carl Hart, Bruce Alexander, Portugal, and Uruguay: prohibition doesn't work, addiction is not what we have been told it is, and there is a better way.

So many things to learn! For instance:
  • physical dependency is the least of the problem with drugs like heroin
  • the U.S. drug war's roots in the early 20th century go back not just to racism (Negro cocaine fiends, Mexican reefer madness, Chinese opium dens) but class hatred and fear of contamination and communism
  • the drug war was furthered by criminal elements that wanted drugs to be illegal so they could profit in the underworld economy
  • a famous (infamous) member of Congress was a heroin addict... who ended up getting his drugs supplied by the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics
  • when drugs (or alcohol) are made illegal, the strength of the substances goes up because sellers need more bang for the buck to compensate for the risks. The most popular alcoholic drink was beer before Prohibition, but soon it was whiskey; the legal, low doses of cocaine and opium that were in drinks and nostrums through the 1910s were replaced by heroin and other high-dose drugs after the Narcotics Act of 1914
The obvious solution, it appears to me, is to completely decriminalize drugs and provide prescriptions to addicts (within a universal health care system), in order to undercut the illegal suppliers -- whose businesses are based in violence -- and prevent for-profit corporations from muscling in to promote drugs the way they promote beer. This is being done in Switzerland with great success, and has been tried out in parts of the U.K. as well.

Remember what happened right after the U.S. ended alcohol prohibition? All those Capone-style gang wars went away, and the next wave of real gang problems rose up as the U.S. escalated under the Nixon and Reagan administrations.
Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University has shown that the murder rate has dramatically increased twice in U.S. history -- and both times were during periods when prohibition was dramatically stepped up. The first is from 1920 to 1933... [the] second is from 1970 to 1990, when the prohibition on drugs dramatically escalated... By the mid-1980s, the... right-wing icon Milton Friedman calculated that it caused an additional ten thousand murders a year in the United States. That's the equivalent of more than three 9/11s every single year (page 81).
As police have found, you can't arrest your way out of drug trafficking. Not only does the crime not decrease, "Whenever [the police] force arrested gang members, it appeared to actually cause an increase in violence, especially homicides" (page 91).

Contrast that with the European and American examples where addicts have been provided the drugs they crave through clean clinics. They stop stealing to pay for their habits. They stop dying from disease and overdose, often get jobs and return to their families, and, most amazingly, even gradually stop using as they are no longer treated like pariahs.

One of Hari's key points is that humans generally take pleasure in intoxication, but the roughly 10 percent of people who become habituated to drugs are filling a hole in their lives, often from abuse of one kind or another. His description of Billie Holiday's childhood is a good example. Treating addicts like lepers is the opposite of what we need to do to end their use of drugs, he argues. To top it off, many addicts find some form of community and identity with other drug users, making it even harder to stop.

Chasing the Scream is full of evidence about what does and doesn't work when it comes to drugs. Hari spent time in northern Mexico with people whose families have been destroyed by the cartels, with former dealers and enforcers and cops who've come to believe the drug war must end.
The book is quite an achievement, journalistically. Hari has placed the original recordings from years of interviews online to back up his conclusions.

A lot of it is painful to read, but the hardest chapter of all was the one about Sheriff Joe Arpaio's methods in Arizona. I knew a bit about this; I'd heard he makes inmates wear cartoonish black-and-white striped jumpsuits, eat only baloney sandwiches, and live in tents. Dehumanizing, yes, but I hadn't realized the depths of Apaio's inhumanity and its negative consequences.

Hari spent time with a group of women prisoners serving drug sentences, who work daily in 110° heat on a chain gang. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke go unacknowledged and untreated. They then return to their living quarters, which Arpaio has referred to as his "concentration camp." These are the tents I'd heard about, unheated in winter and uncooled in summer, donated by the military (some from the Korean war). They get two meals of slop a day, "a brownish gloop of unspecified meat that Arpaio boasted to a reporter contained 'rotten' lumps, and costs at most 40 cents a meal" (page 107). As in a Dickensian debtors' prison, you can get better food from people on the outside if you have any people on the outside. During visiting hours, you can't touch anyone --  not even your kids -- and you're handcuffed to a table the whole time.
There is a properly built air-conditioned prison near Tent City, but Joe Arpaio has thrown these prisoners out of it and turned it into an animal shelter. Now dogs and cats relax in cool rooms while addicts ache in the heat and dust storms outside. The animals, he believes, deserve it (page 109).
It gets worse. In an Arizona state prison (not one of Arpaio's), Hari found out about a woman who was literally cooked alive. Imprisoned because she traded sex for meth, she was diagnosed as bipolar and appointed a guardian because she wasn't competent.  But the guards decided her suicide attempt was manipulation rather than a cry for help, so they put her in an outdoor cage in the desert on a 106° day. It was supposed to be used for no more than two hours at a time.

She asked for water, and they mocked her. When she finally collapsed, soiled in her own feces, she died with first-degree burns from the ground beneath her. After the guards called an ambulance, the paramedics were unable to get an accurate temperature because their thermometers only go to 108°.  Even her eyes had dried out.

Many of the guards who put her in the cage and left her there while she was dying are still working as guards today.

This is what happens in our country: in our names, in the name of the drug war. It's time to end it and base public policy on established facts about what works and doesn't work to make drug use even less important than alcohol use today.

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