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Book Review: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

Updated on February 9, 2018

In the Beginning

At the end of his life, Harry Anslinger, was sucking down the very thing he had fought so hard against – drugs! Harry’s drugs were legal, but nonetheless, he was using them to cope with pain. Not so far from the other addicts discussed in Johann Hari’s January 2015 release of “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs" (Bloomsbury).

Hari’s not some left-over from the 1960’s fighting for a lop-sided cause so he can justify the six pot plants he has thriving under a grow lamp on his closet floor. Instead, an award winning journalist, he spent three years traveling the globe ferreting out the people and the research to make this an educational yet readable volume.

The Characters

Hari starts with where the drug war starts over 100 years ago with a man named Harry Anslinger - whose journals by the way, Hari found at Penn State University. The journals were instrumental in painting a picture of how the war on drugs progressed. In the 1930's, Anslinger was named the head of the Bureau of Narcotics. In this powerful position, Anslinger incorrectly makes some assumptions not to short of paranoid delusions. His beliefs that most white people were not doing drugs was nearly racist. He also believed that drugs, even cannabis, made people go on insane murderous rampages. Touting these claims and with all his hype fueled by the media, Anslinger gained much power in criminalizing drugs.

From this foundation, Hari takes you on chapter long visits with both addicts (Billie Holiday), dealers and racketeers, (Arnold Rothstein) gang members (Chino), doctors (Gabor Mate), researchers. (Bruce Alexander) and Joao Guilao, the National Drug Coordinator of Portugal. His research is extensive and his questioning fair.


Two states in North America have legalized marijuana. Hari digs in deep and finds the individuals involved in the front lines of this legislation. Tonya Winchester, Washington state, believed that marijuana laws wreck the lives of people for years to come. Mason Tvert, Colorado, believed marijuana is safer than alcohol. Whether you believe either argument, the parties involved saw marijuana legalized because of their efforts.

Hari does not claim to have the answers – in fact, he jockeys back and forth often asking questions, looking at stats and interviewing those who can say what does and does not work. And yes, he brings up the “P” word when he looks at effects of prohibition in the United States and then he also bring up the “R” word and wonders what regulation would look like. He chats with politicians in Portugal who have already crossed the great "P" and "R" divide and ponders their cutting-edge decision. It's not perfect, some things work, some things seem the same, but it's a start.

Praise for “Chasing the Scream”

“A terrific book.” – Bill Maher

“An absolutely stunning book. It will blow people away.” – Elton John

“This book is as intoxicatingly thrilling as crack, without destroying your teeth. It will change the drug debate forever.” – Russell Brand

“Breath-taking… A powerful contribution to an urgent debate” – John Harris, The Guardian

“Gripping” – The Financial Times

“A riveting book” – The San Francisco Chronicle

“Superb” – Piers Morgan


Way More to Think About

There are beautiful cases buried within the pages of this riveting book for what might be the cause or causes of addiction. This interests me because I've heard a lot about the effects of childhood trauma lately and some research is pointing to childhood trauma as a cause for addiction. It is also discovered that isolation promotes addiction. These are gorgeous and kind theories with lots to back them up that allow us to see the addict as not some bum on the street, but an injured soul looking for relief.

I find myself saddened and softened and scared all at once. Meth, heroine, crack, cocaine – these are the drugs that frighten most non-users. Can you separate different drugs in mass regulation and what does that look like? Hari looks at places that did not legalize drug use by drug type and how they are faring.

As he ends, I am baffled, the book is still thick with chapters and I realize these are Hari’s references. The journalist in me rejoices for the extensive research as Hari finishes continuing to hash out the recent legalization cases in the US; a difference in argument, he “...can’t resolve”.

In the End

In the end, we have Harry Anslinger sucking down pain pills in a strange quid pro quo. I cannot despise the man for it as I sip a glass of wine and decide whether to take a hydroxyzine to help me sleep. The drug war is a war and with all war, there is winning and losing. Harry Anslinger did what he thought was best for America, but all these years later Hari has us questioning whether there is better way. That's what "Chasing the Scream" tries to sort out. It's worth the read as we see where the next decades take us and .. . the battle wages on.

Should drugs be legalized?

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    • carlajbehr profile image

      Carla J Behr 2 years ago from NW PA

      Thanks Teaches - it is quite an interesting read - I found myself questioning my position, but I remain divided.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      I know of people who have had serious issues from using drugs to enhance their lifestyle. It is hard to break away from it once you start. Your article is interesting and the book may be worth reading.