Almost one hundred years after the start of the war on drugs, I found myself stuck on one of its more minor battlefields.
In the suburbs of North London, one of my closest relatives had been rock-bottoming on cocaine again, while my ex-boyfriend was ending his long East London romance with heroin and picking up a crack pipe instead.
I was watching all this with some distance, in part because I had been swallowing fistfuls of fat white narcolepsy pills for years.
I am not narcoleptic. Many years before, I had read that if you take them, you can write in long manic weeks without pause and without rest, and it worked — I was wired. All this felt like home to me.
One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake one of my relatives from a drugged slump, and not being able to.
Ever since, I have been oddly drawn to addicts and recovering addicts— they feel like my tribe, my group, my people. But now, for the first time, I was beginning to wonder if I had become an addict myself.
My long drugged writing binges would stop only when I collapsed with exhaustion, and I wouldn’t be able to wake for days. I realized one morning that I must have been starting to look a little like the relative I had been trying to wake up, all those years before.
I had been taught how to respond—by my government, and by my culture—when you find yourself in this situation. It is with a war.
We all know the script: it is etched onto your subconscious, like the correct direction to look when you cross the street. Treat drug users and addicts as criminals. Repress them. Shame them. Coerce them into stopping.
This is the prevailing view in almost every country in the world. For years, I had been publicly arguing against this strategy.
I wrote newspaper articles and appeared on television to argue that punishing and shaming drug users only makes them worse—and creates a blizzard of other problems for the society. I argued instead for a second strategy— legalize drugs stage by stage, and use the money we currently spend on punishing addicts to fund compassionate care instead.
But as I stared at these people I loved through my own drugged glaze, a small part of me wondered if I really meant what I had been saying.
The voices in my mind were like a howling drill sergeant in an old Vietnam War movie, shrieking abuse at the recruits. You are an idiot to do this. This is shameful. You are a fool for not stopping. Somebody should prevent you. You should be punished.
So even as I criticized the drug war with my words, I was often waging it in my head. I can’t say I was evenly divided — my rational mind always favored reform — but this internal conflict wouldn’t stop.
I had been looking for a way out of this chemical-stained stalemate for years—and then one morning, a thought came to me.
You and the people you love are just tiny smudges on a much larger canvas.
If you stay where you are — focused only on the shape of your own little smudges, this year like last year and the year before — you will never understand more than you do now. But what if you found a way to step back and look, for once, at the entire painting?
I scribbled down some questions that had puzzled me for years. Why did the drug war start, and why does it continue? Why can some people use drugs without any problems, while others can’t?
What really causes addiction? What happens if you choose a radically different policy? I decided to go on a journey across the front lines of the war on drugs to find the answers.
So I packed up my apartment, flushed my last remaining pills down the toilet, and set off . I knew this war had begun in the United States, although at that point I didn’t know when, or how.
I arrived in New York City with a list of names of experts in this field. It is a good thing, I know now, that I didn’t book a return ticket. I didn’t realize it on that first day, but this journey would end up taking me across nine countries and thirty thousand miles, and it would last for three years.
On the road, I found the stories of people I could not have imagined at the start—people who taught me the answers to the questions I had been wrestling with for so long.
A transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn who wanted to know who killed his mother. A nurse in Ciudad Juárez marching through the desert searching for her daughter. A child smuggled out of the Budapest ghetto during the Holocaust who grew up to uncover the real causes of addiction. A junkie leading an uprising in Vancouver. A serial killer in a cage in Texas.
A Portuguese doctor who led his country to decriminalize all drugs, from cannabis to crack. A scientist in Los Angeles who had been feeding hallucinogens to a mongoose, just to see what would happen.
They—and many others—were my teachers. I was startled by what I learned from them. It turns out that many of our most basic assumptions about this subject are wrong.
Drugs are not what we think they are. Drug addiction is not what we have been told it is.
The drug war is not what our politicians have sold it as for one hundred years and counting.
And there is a very different story out there waiting for us when we are ready to hear it—one that should leave us thrumming with hope.
Extract taken from Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, published by Bloomsbury, $29.99
Johann Hari will be appearing at Brisbane Writers’ Festival September 3-5: