Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs – Johann Hari on RAI (1/2)


On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Hari tells Paul Jay that from the 1914 legislation criminalizing drugs, to the targeting of singer Billie Holiday, to today’s “War on Drugs”, racism is at the heart of the policy

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

No city in North America–perhaps in the industrialized world–has been so devastated by drugs–and perhaps more so by the war on drugs–than Baltimore, where we are right now, anywhere from 200 to 300 murders most years, families destroyed. Perhaps one to two people out of every four in Baltimore have some interaction with the justice system, and usually something to do with, supposedly, war on drugs.

Now joining us is a man who’s tried to understand where the war on drugs began. And in the studio joining us is Johann Hari. He just published a book he’s been working on for the past three years called Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. He also worked with comedian Russell Brand on the Trews YouTube news channel. Johann was also a columnist for The Independent in London for nine years. He’s written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Nation.

And thanks very much for joining us.

JOHANN HARI, WRITER AND JOURNALIST: Great to be with you. I was just thinking as you said that, at the birth of the war on drugs, the man who pioneers the drug war says there is one city that proves if you are really tough, if you really crack down, if you really send a lot of people to prison, drugs will disappear. That city was Baltimore.

How’s it working out for you?

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, it’s working out really well.

So we’ll catch up again to what’s been going on in Baltimore.

Most people trace the war on drugs to Richard Nixon in the 1970s. But in your book you trace this back much earlier. So where does this begin?

HARI: Yeah, this is a popular misconception. About four years ago, when I started working on the book, I realized we were coming up to 100 years since drugs were first banned. And I had a quite personal reason to want to look into all of this, because we had a lot of addiction in my family. One of my earliest memories was trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. And I saw this date–oh, a hundred years ago, drugs were banned. Does that mean the drug war began then? I didn’t really know.

I realized there was an incredibly broad range of questions that I just didn’t know the answer to, even though I thought I was relatively well informed. You know, why were drugs banned? Why do we continue with this drug war, even though it appears to not be working? What really causes drug use and drug addiction? And what are the alternatives?

So I ended up going on this journey. I didn’t expect it would take quite–you know, take me across 30,000 miles and nine countries at the time, but I really wanted to–.

You know, I think part of the problem is we discuss this in such an abstract way. It’s harder to do in Baltimore, which is one of the reasons why you have a more sophisticated debate here. But in most places, they talk about the drugs and how we should respond to them, as if we’re kind of sitting in a philosophical seminar thinking about how the world should be. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to sit with real people all over the world and tell the stories of how they were changed by it.

So I ended up spending a lot of time with a really broad range of people, from a transsexual crack dealer in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to a cop in Baltimore who learned why the drug war is such a disaster, to the only country in the world that’s ever decriminalized all drugs, from cannabis to crack, with incredible results.

And the main thing I learned is almost everything we think we know about this subject is wrong. Drugs aren’t what we think they are. Drug addiction isn’t what we think it is. The drug war isn’t what we think it is. And the alternatives aren’t what we think they are. And it really begins a hundred years ago with the passing of the Harrison Narcotics Act, which was the first decision to ban drugs in the United States. And, really, the way I–.

JAY: What year is that?

HARI: Nineteen-fourteen. Two global wars begin in 1914. One lasts four years and one hasn’t ended yet.

And the best way, I think, to explain the dynamics that lead to that ban is through a story I open the book with. And it may seem like an odd place to go, although it’s a Baltimore homegirl. In 1939, Billie Holiday stands on stage and she sings the song Strange Fruit, which a lot of your viewers will know is a song about lynching. Her goddaughter, Lorraine Feather, said to me, you’ve got to understand how shocking this is to have an African-American woman who wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door of the hotel–she had to go through the back entrance–standing in front of a white audience, singing a lament against lynching. And that night, according to her biographer, Julia Blackburn, she gets a warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to stop singing the song. It’s a really key moment in the drug war.

Billie Holiday had grown up here in Pigtown, as it was called, one of the parts of Baltimore, when this was the only city without even a sewage system. And Billie Holliday had promised herself something. She wasn’t allowed in a lot of the stores, ’cause she was African-American. She promised herself she was never going to bow her head to any white man. So when she gets this threat from Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the founder of the modern drug war, she effectively says, screw you, I can do what I want.

And that’s the moment when this process of stalking her that leads to her death begins. It’s a really fascinating story. I learned it from the archival research and from talking to her surviving friends.

Harry Anslinger, the man who begins the stalking of her, took over the Bureau of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition was ending. So he’s got this huge department. It’s really demoralized, it’s really corrupt, and it’s got nothing to do, and he wants to keep himself and his men in a job. So he just suddenly–you know, he announces that cannabis is this great evil, even though he’d said it was fine before, and he really begins–so he takes the ban that had begun in 1914 and massively steps it up. He turns it into a huge government bureaucracy. Previously it had been banned, but it was left to the states. It was not a perfect system. But he really militarizes and industrializes it.

JAY: Go back a sec. Why does legislation get passed in 1914?

HARI: It’s fascinating. If you think about–.

JAY: ‘Cause, I mean, Coke used to have coke.

HARI: Yeah.

JAY: And even in the 1914 legislation, learning from my notes about your book, if it’s correct, there’s even a loophole there were doctors can still prescribe for addicts. So there–it doesn’t seem the same deep ideological hysteria about drugs that comes later.

HARI: It’s the beginning of the ideological hysteria. It’s very interesting. If you had said to me four years ago why were drugs bad, I would have guessed that people gave then the reasons that we would give now. If we had to give reasons, we’d say, well, we don’t want kids to use drugs, we don’t want people to become addicted. That stuff barely comes up. It’s founded in a racial hysteria, a huge panic, a belief that Chinese Americans and African Americans are taking drugs, forgetting their place, and attacking white people. It’s a proxy way of trying to put African Americans and Chinese Americans back in their place.

A good example is: in San Francisco, there was a Chinatown, and they wanted to clear it out. So they tried to literally forcibly relocate the Chinese Americans to an area reserved for pig farming, right? And the California Supreme Court says, you can’t do that; they’re American citizens; you can’t do that. So then they immediately decide, well, we’ll crack down on their opium, because that’s, like, a symbol that we can attack. And they go and they just raid Chinatown and arrest them all for that reason instead.

So you see that again with African-Americans. I mean, some of this stuff is shocking when you read it, you know, doctors saying in these official statements about why it should be banned, the cocaine (N-word) sure is hard to kill, this belief that African Americans are attacking white people because they use cocaine.

You can see what’s happening. White Americans didn’t want to think, well, maybe African Americans are attacking us–and they were, in very small numbers, when you consider how badly they were treated–because they were thinking–you didn’t want to think, well, maybe African Americans were attacking us because we’re treating them appallingly, their life is terrible, we’re denying the more basic opportunities. Much easier to think, oh, no, it’s this white powder, and if we get rid of this white powder, they’ll calm down again.

JAY: I mean, how many instances where there have [been] African-Americans using white powder and attacking somebody? I mean, there hasn’t–.

HARI: Well, there were lots of–.

JAY: To create enough for a national legislation.

HARI: Sure. It’s a hysteria in the same way that, you know, there’s all sorts of hysterias that go on that have no basis. We’re in the middle of a hysteria about vaccination. There’s no–it’s based on a false belief.

JAY: ‘Cause there’s lots of white people using heroin and coke in those days.

HARI: Sure. Well, it’s very revealing. When Harry Anslinger finds out that Billie Holiday’s a heroin addict and begins this process of stalking her that leads to her death that we can talk about it if you want, he also finds out Judy Garland is a heroin addict. Billie Holiday gets stalked until her death bed and they’re imprisoned. Judy Garland, he tells her to take slightly longer vacations and tells the studio she’s going to be fine. Spot the difference. You know. Of course they knew that drug use went all across the United States, all ethnic groups, as it does today. It’s a proxy war. It’s a way of attacking African Americans and Chinese Americans.

And the Billie Holiday story, I mean, it’s so heartbreaking what happens next. He hated–Anslinger hated employing African Americans, but you couldn’t really send a white guy into Harlem to track Billie Holiday. It’d be kind of obvious. He employs this guy called Jimmy Fletcher. He follows her for two years, tracks her everywhere she goes. And she was so amazing, he fell in love with her, and his whole life he felt ashamed of what he did. He busts her. She’s put on trial. She said, the trial was called the United States versus Billie Holiday, and that’s how it felt. She’s sent to prison.

And when she gets out, exactly what happens to addicts today: she can’t do her work. You had to have a cabaret performer’s license to perform anywhere where alcohol was served. So she couldn’t sing. Her friend Yolande Bavan said to me, what is the cruelest thing you can do to a person is to take away the thing they love.

So she can’t sing. She sinks back into addiction. When she’s in her early 40s, she collapses in New York. She’s taken to a hospital. The first hospital won’t even take her ’cause she’s an addict. Second hospital takes her. She says to one of her friends, she’s convinced the narcotics agent aren’t finished with her. She says, they’re going to kill me in there; don’t let them; they’re going to kill me.

She’s taken in. She’s diagnosed with liver cancer. They arrest her on her deathbed. They handcuff her to her deathbed. I interviewed the last remaining person who’d been in that room. They take away all her things. They don’t allow her friends in to see her. She goes into withdrawal. One of her friends manages to get her prescribed methadone. She begins to recover. Ten days later, they cut off the methadone and she dies.

And here’s the amazing thing about Billie Holiday–and this really helped me to think about the addicts in my life as well. Billie Holiday always found somewhere to sing that song. She would find anywhere they’d have her, and she sang Strange Fruit, and she defied the people doing this to her.

And to know that addicts can be heroes and to know that while we’re talking all over the world there are people listening to Billie Holiday and feeling stronger because of what she did, I think tells us so much. This story tells us about why the drug war began in race. It tells us about how the drug war works today. It still is racist. It tells us about what we do to addicts today.

I went to a prison in Arizona where women are made to go out on chain gangs wearing T-shirts saying “I was a drug addict” and dig graves. You know, those women’ll get out; they’ll never be able to work. Is there anyone watching this who thinks they’re more likely to get clean because we do that to them? And so it tells us about the reality now.

But also it tells us about the way out. The courage of resistance of Billie Holiday at a time when very few people were standing up is really something that should inspire us as we figure out how to end this thing.

HARI: Go back to this 1914, ’cause I learned from your book that–I think, if I have it incorrectly, there’s this loophole that allowed doctors to prescribe addicts heroin. And that stays true in Nevada–and, I should say, it becomes illegal in Nevada and the Chinese gangs take use of it.

HARI: No, it’s slightly the other way around.

JAY: Okay. And make sense of this, ’cause here’s the underlying question, and you’ll tell the story. How much is organized crime behind the war on drugs? Start with the California story.

HARI: So, as you say, when they write the law, very specifically they say, look, this doesn’t apply to addicts. Addicts can go to the doctor and get whatever drug they’re addicted to. So this carries on. Doctors just prescribe heroin to anyone who needs it, right, in most places. And it’s shut down state-by-state by Anslinger–and slightly by his predecessor, but it’s really stepped up by Anslinger.

And a fascinating story that, as far as I can tell, has been untold since then that I uncovered. In California, the local Chinese drug gangs were really pissed off because in Nevada the drug dealers had to–they’d shut this loophole, and so the drug dealers had to go to the criminals to buy their drugs. Right? But in California they kept the heroin clinics open because they were hugely popular. The mayor of Los Angeles stands in front of one of the heroin clinics and says, you ain’t shutting this; this is good for our city. And so the local Chinese drug gangs bribe the federal narcotics agents to introduce the drug war, to crack down, to shut the clinics.

The only people who’ve ever won from the drug war were criminal gangs. If you ban something popular, it doesn’t go away; it gets transferred to armed criminal gangs, with all sorts of horrors that happen, as you saw with alcohol prohibition. You know, Milton Friedman, not a man I’d normally quote approvingly, said Al Capone was the product of alcohol prohibition; the Crips and the Bloods were the product of drug prohibition. And he’s absolutely right.

And, again, at the end of the drug war, when I speak to the people who led the Colorado legalization campaign, there were people frightened in California to point out that legalization will bankrupt the cartels, ’cause they thought the cartels would come and attack them for saying that. At the birth of the drug war and at the end of the drug war, one group wins overall, and it’s the criminals. And I went to northern Mexico, the deadliest city in the world, Ciudad Juárez, and saw that dynamic on steroids.

JAY: There’s got to be more to why they do this in 1914. How widespread was drug abuse, drug addiction at this time? Was it becoming what alcoholism had been?

HARI: No. It’s very interesting. There were studies that were done that showed that the vast majority of drug users had normal jobs. Certainly they were–if you were a drug addict, it was like being an alcoholic: your life was depleted. They were no more likely to be poor than the general population.

And it’s very interesting. The best way to understand what happens, that transition, is through the story of this doctor, Henry Smith Williams, this doctor in California who treats addicts when drugs were legal and then treats them as it’s being criminalized and as the crackdown begins. And he really sees what happens. You know, you have people who were somewhat depleted but went to the local store and bought their drugs. Suddenly two crime waves are summoned into existence. You have armed criminal gangs take over the trade, with all the violence that comes from that, because if something is illegal, you can’t go to the police to protect your property rights. You have to be terrifying. You have to fight for–I learned this from my friend, the transsexual crack dealer in Brownsville, Brooklyn–you have to fight over it. You have to kill over it. So it’s partly that.

In order to justify all that risk you’re taking, you can massively jack up the price. The price of the drugs goes up 1,000 percent after they criminalized. So, suddenly you have these addicts who previously could afford their drug. What do they start doing? The women start prostituting themselves. The men start committing property crimes.

You know, there’s this huge rise. And it’s very important to remember, loads of people saw how destructive this was at the start of the drug war. This didn’t come in easily. It’s massively disputed. They have to round up and arrest 20,000 doctors who insist on continuing to prescribe, even though they see it’s a disaster.

JAY: Organized crime, it’s–if I understand correctly, is–gets into the heroin trade in the early 20th century.

HARI: Only when it’s banned. I mean, ’cause when it’s legal–.

JAY: So when does Rothstein get in and start the move from alcohol to heroin?

HARI: Yeah. So Arnold Rothstein was the most famous gangster of the 1920s. He’s probably most famous for being remembered as the guy who rigs the 1919 World Series. Fascinating guy. He basically invents modern drug dealing. And he’s a very smart guy, and he sees a market opportunity. And he obviously–he mostly does alcohol, but he sees the alcohol prohibition ain’t going to last that long, and he immediately capitalizes on the drug market and immediately moves into it and is a huge beneficiary of it. Yeah, he–.

One of the really important things to understand–and you see this both in drug dealing then and drug dealing now, and I saw this in, as I say, the transsexual crack dealer I became friends with in Brownsville, Brooklyn, whose story I tell in the book, and the story of the young hitman for the Zetas cartel in Mexico, whose story I tell in the book. I didn’t check, but I’m guessing there’s a liquor store pretty near where we are, right? We’re in Baltimore. If you and I go into that liquor store and we try to steal the beer or the vodka, they’re going to call the cops, and the cops will come and take us away, right? That liquor store doesn’t need to be violent. They don’t need to be threatening or to intimidate anyone, right? If we go to the local weed dealer or the local coke dealer and we try to steal their weed or their coke, they can’t call the cops. The cops will come and arrest them, right? So they have to be terrifying.

JAY: Occasionally in Baltimore it’s the cops doing the stealing.

HARI: That’s definitely true.

JAY: But go ahead.

HARI: So if you’re a dealer, as Chino [spl?] taught me, you have to be frightening. You don’t want to be having a fight every day. So the ideal is to establish a reputation for being so frightening that no one would even think of taking you on. The sociologist Philippe Bourgois calls it prohibition creates a culture of terror. This has nothing to do with drugs. If you banned milk, right, and people still wanted milk, exactly the same dynamic would happen to the sale of milk in the marketplace, right? That is just how it works.

There’s a really fascinating study a quote in the book by a guy called Professor Paul Goldstein who looked at all the murders that were classified as drug-related murders in New York City in, a believe, 1986. The exact figures are in the book, but if I remember rightly, I think 2 percent of them were instances where someone had committed a property crime to get their drugs and it had gone wrong and they’d killed someone. About 7 percent were where someone had used drugs and lost it. And all the rest were nothing to do with drugs. They were prohibition-related crimes. They were criminal gangs killing each other or people getting caught in the crossfire. This is a horrendous–I tell the story of a girl called Tiffany Smith in the book here in Baltimore, three-year-old girl playing on her porch who’s shot and killed in shootouts between dealers.

None of this has to happen, right? Where are the violent alcohol dealers? The drinks aisle at Walmart doesn’t go and blow up the local liquor store, they don’t go and shoot the local liquor store guy in the face. Why? They did under alcohol prohibition. Because it’s a legal market. All that Milton Friedman–I’m sorry to keep quoting the Nobel prize-winning economist who was horrendously right-wing, but he was very good on this–pointed out there are 10,000 additional murders every year as a result of drug prohibition, right? That’s 10,000 people. That’s three 9/11s that we can prevent by transferring this away from armed criminal gangs into a legal regulated market as they’ve done in other countries. And I can talk about it if you like.

JAY: Harry Anslinger, who’s the head of the narcotics division at the FBI and, as you call, sort of the guy that really drives the war on drugs, you say that he begins because he has to justify his own existence. But he also seems to become quite a true believer.

HARI: Oh, yeah. No. I think those two things overlap. It’s very interesting if you look at marijuana. He had said that marijuana is not very harmful, he’s not that bothered by it. And then suddenly, you know, because the heroin and cocaine market isn’t that big, as you said earlier, you can’t justify a huge department for this small, relatively small trade, he suddenly announces that cannabis is worse than heroin. He says that if Frankenstein’s monster bumped into cannabis on the stairs, Frankenstein’s monster would drop dead of fright, right?

JAY: Does he have direct connection to these crazy public service announcements they used to have?

HARI: They’re him. That’s him. The Reefer Madness, that movie, that’s Harry Anslinger. That’s all his stuff.

It’s very interesting how he does it. He latches on to this case. There’s a boy called Victor Licata, who’s–I think he was in his early 20s in Florida–who hacked his family to death with an axe. And Harry Anslinger announces, this boy used marijuana, and this is what will happen if you use marijuana. And it becomes a massive, huge news story–the kind of Fox News of its day, Hearst newspapers, massive story. It’s the main reason why marijuana is banned, this hysteria.

Years later, as I explain in the book, someone goes back and checks the psychiatric files for this boy. There’s not even any evidence he used marijuana. His family had congenital insanity. They’d been told to institutionalize him years before. They wanted to keep him at home. But you still hear these arguments. I mean, they’re getting mercifully rarer. But we’re still stuck with the ban based on this crazy nonsense.

JAY: Now, I’m going to give away the ending of the book. Can I do that?

HARI: Of course.

JAY: ‘Cause this is, like, too juicy not to. So after this decades of war on drugs–and as you say in your book, not only did Anslinger hear a scream, but he made many other people scream–he finds an American senator who’s a heroin–on heroin.

HARI: This blew my mind. It wasn’t heroin. It was opiates.

Harry Anslinger finds out that Joe McCarthy, the king of the red baiters, who Anslinger loved, was using opiates. And he goes to McCarthy and he says, you know, you’ve got to stop, Senator. And McCarthy says, screw you; I can do what I want; what are you going to do? And so Anslinger arranges for a private prescription that he can go and collect at a pharmacy D.C. So when Harry Anslinger was confronted with somebody he cares about, he turns into the most compassionate bleeding heart, let’s give them the drugs they want.

And it’s very interesting. I have yet to find evidence of any politician who champions the drug war who, when one of their own relatives becomes a drug addict, calls the cops and has them taken away to prison. No one wants the drug war for the people they love. We should want the same compassionate approach for everyone that we’d want for our own relatives.

JAY: And Anslinger for himself.

HARI: Yeah. Well, when Anslinger develops angina later in his life, he starts using opiates. And I sometimes think the first time Harry Anslinger injects himself with opiates, did he think about Billie Holiday? Did he think about all those doctors who he had destroyed, whose lives he’d ruined? Did he think about Joe McCarthy? What went through his mind? We don’t know. It’s lost to history. But I think it’s a really interesting–if an irony or hypocrisy, it’s just an interesting, sad little footnote to this whole thing.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, we’re going to talk about addiction and possible solutions, because drugs are a scourge. In most cases, they’re very destructive to families and young people–of course I’m not talking about marijuana here, but in Baltimore you can talk to a lot of ordinary people who actually support the war on drugs, ’cause they’ve seen members of their family destroyed by addiction, and they don’t know what the alternative to the war on drugs is, even though it seems to have not have solved anything. So in the book, Johann explores a lot of alternatives, and we’ll look at those.

So please join us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.