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Johann Hari Wants To Change Everything You Know About Drugs

"The drug war distorts how we think about drugs themselves. You might put on Facebook, 'I had a great bottle of wine last night', but you'd be foolish to put 'I had a great line of coke last night'."

by Alan Weedon
Aug 17 2015, 11:04pm

Image courtesy of the Festival of Dangerous ideas

Johann Hari wants to talk about the way the war on drugs has misinformed us about abuse and addiction. He wrote his latest book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs about it. Since its release he's drawn praise from everyone from Elton John to Noam Chomsky; and later this year he'll cover his pet topic with Naomi Klein at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.

But before he wrote books about the way we view and criminalise drugs, Johann was the star columnist at The Independent for most of the 2000s. Then in 2011 it was revealed he plagiarised quotes from his interviewee's books and other journalist's interviews. Later it also came out that he anonymously tarnished the Wikipedia pages of a colleagues. He resigned from the paper that year.

Considering everything a brief Google search will tell you about him, it's fair to say many are apprehensive about an investigative journalist who torched so much of his journalistic integrity so publicly. We caught up to him to talk about drugs, and why we should trust him.

VICE: Hi Johann, reading through your FODI bio you explicitly address your misconduct at The Independent. Why have you decided to be so frank? Johann Hari: If you fuck up you should be candid about it, and you should demonstrate that you haven't done it again. So with this book all the quotes that were said directly to me, people can hear on the book's website. I think it's one of the reasons a lot of people have praised the book—and they're people who don't lend their reputations lightly.

Have you ever taken recreational drugs?
Yes, when I was younger, I don't anymore. But I've been asked this question before. A lot of the time, people think if you're not in favour of the war on drugs it means you want to use drugs. You can be passionately anti-drugs but believe in the end of the war on drugs—it causes far more harm than the alternatives.

Why do you think compassionate policies don't rate well among our politicians?
There isn't a movement to demand it. If you're a politician and you take a stand on this issue, the media will savage you, and a lot of voters will turn on you. What we need to do is to build a movement that will mean there is a cost for not doing what we want.

Why don't you think that's been communicated?
It's partly because of the way the drug war distorts the way we think about drugs themselves. You might put on Facebook, "I had a great bottle of wine last night", but you'd be foolish to put "I had a great line of coke last night". This is like if the only evidence we ever saw of alcohol use was a homeless addict in the gutter who was dying of liver cancer, because all of the other alcohol use had to happen in secret.

It's also about explaining certain key things that people don't currently know. One of the things I think is really important for people to understand is that the vast majority of drug use is completely non-harmful. It doesn't cause addiction, it doesn't harm your body, and it doesn't cause overdoses. The UN Office of Drug Control even had to admit a few years ago that 90 percent of all current illegal drug use is non-problematic. But if we're talking about 90 percent, there's about 10 per cent who do get harmed in other ways.

It was interesting that you talk about the 10 percent and their representation. Breaking Bad comes to mind. Do you think there's an issue in our popular stories neglecting to explore why people are prone to addiction in the first place?
Breaking Bad's a brilliant parable about the worst aspects of the drug war. It's actually got nothing to do with users or addicts, but it's to do with the violence caused by prohibition. What you see throughout Breaking Bad with Walter White is that he can't be a nice guy selling meth. You've got to establish a reputation for being a terrifying badass so nobody will dare steal from you. And the only way you can do that is through increasingly theatrical acts of violence and aggression.

We need to change the stories we tell. It's valuable to talk about individual recovery, but it's also important to talk about social recovery. Something's gone wrong with us. Does the head of Smirnoff go ahead and shoot the head of Heineken in the face now that prohibition has ended? In Northern Mexico, about 160,000 people have been killed or disappeared in the last eight years because of the drug war.

This week two Australian politicians admitted that their children were addicted to meth. How do our politicians even start a constructive debate around this?
It's really important to understand that addiction is a deep expression of underlying pain. Where pain is reduced in a society, like Portugal, there will be a reduction in addiction. We need to understand that and deal with it. The approach of the Abbott government is to double down on everything that's failed and ignored all of the evidence that's actually worked. That's a tragedy, because we need policies that bring people back to us, rather than policies that make their addictions worse.

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Johann will be speaking at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. To win tickets to see him and a bunch of other interesting speakers, click here.

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