Chasing the Scream
By Johann Hari. Bloomsbury Press, 389 pp, hardcover
On the cover of Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream is a man in the shadows holding a pipe and a lighter to his face. The camera is angled up toward the trees and sky behind him. To most people, it’s a shot that could have been taken anywhere. But to residents of Vancouver, it’s an image that will likely look familiar. It’s Gastown, where one of the most affluent areas of the city blends into a neighbourhood best-known for drug addiction.
There is a lot in Hari’s 2015 book about prohibition and the drug war that will feel familiar to Vancouver readers. Hari spends more than 50 of the book’s 300 pages in our quiet city.
With fascination and compassion, he recounts the stories of some of the Downtown Eastside’s best-known characters, unearthing intimate details that even some seasoned Vancouver reporters might be surprised to learn.
The life of the late Bud Osborn—who passed away in May 2014—is recounted, beginning as far back as the Insite founder’s childhood in Toledo, Ohio. Osborn’s early experiences with family trauma are tied to his later struggles with alcohol and then heroin addiction. And those in turn are tied to his days in the Downtown Eastside, where he went on to pioneer harm-reduction programs and eventually help get North America’s first and only supervised-injection facility off the ground.
Portland Hotel Society cofounder Liz Evans is interviewed about her time as a young nurse. She pushed for a new kind of social housing in the Downtown Eastside where tenants were guaranteed a room they could keep regardless of day-to-day struggles with addiction or a mental illness. (Today, the City of Vancouver calls this “housing first” and places it at the centre of strategies to reduce street homelessness.)
Hari also gives considerable space to Bruce Alexander, a psychologist and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. Alexander once elicited scoffs for challenging widely accepted theories related to chemical addictions. His innovative research has since changed the ways we understand fundamental concepts about the disease, Hari writes (and recently discussed in Vancouver during a TED talk last June).
Finally, there is Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician who was once a fixture in the Downtown Eastside and whose work obviously had a great influence on Hari.
“I find myself walking in circles through the Downton Eastside after one of my conversations with Gabor, past addicts who are half collapsed on the street,” Hari writes. “They are wearing the exaggerated stage makeup of the street prostitute, or hawking drugs or random items they have discovered in dumpsters—old VHS tapes and half-broken shoes. They shout and holler, at me, and at the world.
“I picture the look of judgement on the faces of people who stumble into this neighbourhood by mistake. I can see them now. The people from stable families, who glance at addicts and shake their head and say, ‘I would never do that to myself.’ I feel an urge to stop them and wave Gabor’s statistics in their face and say—Don’t you see? You wouldn’t do this to yourself because you don’t have to. You never had to learn to cope with more pain than you could bear.”
Hari presents the city as a progressive example of how other regions might take their first steps toward legalization. One not as far along as Portugal or Uruguay, but a city ahead of any other in North America.
“Vancouver had given me an itchy sense of hope,” he writes as he ends his time here. Optimism might not be the feeling many take away from a walk through the Downtown Eastside. But Chasing the Scream is a work that flips a lot of notions on their heads.
It’s a thoroughly researched takedown of just about every argument there is in support of the war on drugs. At the core of Hari’s case is one simple point: even the most addictive of illicit drugs are more harmful to people when they remain illegal.
Driven almost entirely by anecdotal narratives and in-depth character profiles, Chasing the Scream tells the story of the drug war as it plays out on the ground.
He begins with the cop, the robber, and the addict caught between them.
There’s Harry Anslinger, a Prohibition-era officer of the U.S. Treasury Department who Hari presents as the prototype for fanatical executors of the drug war. His opponent is Arnold Rothstein, a ruthless and brilliant New York gangster who caught on early to the potential for wealth and power created by a government ban on something so many people desire. Billy Holiday is the tragic consequence of the system created by those opposing sides. It isn’t heroin that defeats her but authorities’ persecution of her addiction to the drug.
From there, Hari hops around the globe, from blood-filled streets in Ciudad Juárez to a prison where women are locked in solitary confinement in the desert of Arizona to government-funded rehabilitation programs in Portugal.
There are omissions. There is scant attention paid to politics or even Washington’s most influential players in the war on drugs. Former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, for example, barely receive a mention. The war’s greatest villains, such as Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega, are similarly ignored. Racial elements also receive less attention than they deserve, though on that topic, Hari refers readers to Michelle Alexander and her exceptional 2010 book The New Jim Crow (a work that cannot be recommended highly enough).
But what Hari does cover with Chasing the Scream, he covers exceptionally well. It’s a book with the power to change entrenched views and policies that reads so quickly I could hardly put it down.
It’s also worth noting that Hari is realistic. He’s looked at the data and accepts that the use of some drugs will increase after legalization. (Drug use, but not necessarily harmful drug use, as he goes on to explain.) It also might be telling that he describes Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with such positivity; perhaps that should serve as a warning that ending the drug war will involve measures not always so easy to stomach.