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How to beat the dealer: two different approaches to the war on drugs

Johan Harri's Chasing the Scream refutes today's anti-narcotics policy, while Edward Follis and Douglas Century's The Dark Art takes us undercover in the global drugs change.

Seized drugs. Photo: Mark Renders/Getty Images


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

Johann Hari
Bloomsbury Circus, 400pp, £18.99

The Dark Art: My Undercover Life
in Global Narco-Terrorism

Edward Follis and Douglas Century
Scribe, 272pp, £9.99

We like getting high and, generally, it causes few problems. “Drug use is deeply widespread – and mostly positive,” Johann Hari argues in Chasing the Scream, written after his notorious departure from the Independent in 2011. It’s making drugs illegal that’s the problem. But the war on drugs doesn’t work. Along with death and taxes, one of life’s few certainties is that prohibition allows criminals (and the government agencies that chase them) to flourish.

Hari’s refutation of contemporary anti-narcotics policy stands on the assertion that one US agency boss in particular was responsible for our present-day woes. Harry Anslinger established the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930. A veteran of the Bureau of Prohibition’s fight against alcohol, Anslinger turned the FBN into a personal fiefdom dedicated to propagating all-out drug prohibition, regardless of much evidence that it was ineffective. Discrediting and destroying those who disagreed with him, Anslinger then bullied other countries into following the same disastrous route.

To prove that nothing much has changed in the intervening 84 years, Hari searches for modern-day versions of Anslinger and other archetypal figures from the early days of the war on drugs, such as the jazz singer and heroin user Billie Holiday and the 1920s trafficker Arnold Rothstein. Unsurprisingly, he finds them.

Hari argues that the war on drugs has been a failure. Edward Follis is mainly happy to have survived it. The Dark Art, written with the journalist Douglas Century, is based on 30-odd years as an agent for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the offspring of the FBN. Confirming Hari’s view of the war’s origins, Follis often fought with Prohibition-era ammunition. Suspected traffickers’ vehicles can be stopped on American streets without a search warrant, thanks to Carroll v United States (1925), which allows such searches in “exigent circumstances”. Much of Follis’s working life has been spent in exigent circumstances.

Early in his career as an undercover agent, he is nearly shot by gang members in Los Angeles. He confesses that, afterwards, “I sweated and shivered like I had the flu, puked my guts up for almost an hour.” Such graphic honesty about his failings makes Follis an extremely likeable character. He finds, happily, that the war on drugs takes him to California, Hawaii and Thailand, rather than – as it might here – to east Manchester or the Medway towns, and he is honest about the thrills of driving “a gorgeous white BMW 735” and carrying around $1m of US government cash.

Nonetheless, Follis has seen colleagues die and has often come close to death – a risk he describes most vividly when an Uzi is placed between his eyebrows and he is told: “If you fuck me, boy, I’ll fuckin’ kill you.” At the time, he is hiding a microphone wire behind his scrotum. It is hard to disagree with Oliver Stone, who is quoted on the book’s cover: “Ed Follis is the real deal.”

Hari’s dust jacket is splashed with endorsements from the great and the good of the showbiz left: “thrilling” (Naomi Klein), “brilliant” (Stephen Fry), “stunning” (Elton John). The most telling, however, is Glenn Greenwald’s “rigorous”. Hari handed back his 2008 Orwell Prize after misattributing quotes. Given this, it is understandable that he is specific about the provenance of his material; he has even uploaded his interviews so that you can listen to them online.

References by a Scottish-born author to Elizabeth II as “the Queen of England” suggest that Chasing the Scream has been written with an American audience in mind – which is fair enough, as with drugs that’s where the big market is. But even though Hari has some experience in his personal life of the harm that drugs can cause, I’m not sure what to make of statements such as, “Ever since I was a child, I have been asking myself: what causes addiction?” Things must have been pretty gloomy in the Hari paddling pool.

If this book is an attempt by Hari to find redemption of sorts, it is a brave one. I have stood on the US-Mexican border, watching the gurneys carrying the injured away from shoot-outs. Hari has taken huge risks by spending time in a major drug junction like the city of Juárez, where Mexican gangs decapitate their opponents and display the heads on poles.

“In Juárez,” Hari tells us, “it is believed that 60 to 70 per cent of the economy runs on laundered drug money.” But it is Follis who has the telling details. People are so poor in the barrios of Juárez that they burn tyres to keep warm in winter. Mexican gangs call the curved magazine of an AK-47 the cuerno de chivo, the “goat’s horn”. They empty them into victims’ faces to deny their families an open-casket funeral.

Follis has travelled more widely than Hari, including to Afghanistan, and his account is the more entertaining. This is partly because it wears the many horrors lightly, eschewing heart-on-sleeve despair for illustrative tragic irony. In May 2001, Follis tells us, the Bush administration awarded the Taliban government in Afghanistan $43m for eradicating its domestic poppy cultivation. In October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan.

Hari, who works with Russell Brand, ends Chasing the Scream with a call to arms: “Put down this book and make that connection now.” The truth is that we are already heading, slowly, in the direction Hari would have us go. Those voices that call for the legalisation and decriminalisation of drugs are no longer routinely shouted down. And perhaps he doesn’t differ from Harry Anslinger that much – Hari laughs at the FBN founder’s belief that marijuana will send you mad but writes, “There is strong scientific evidence that persistent cannabis use affects how adolescent and teenage brains develop and can permanently lower their IQ.”

Follis claims that he has never taken drugs. His addiction is tricking people, the traffickers he snares, into doing what he wants them to do. In that sense, his profession offers the same satisfaction enjoyed by a successful confidence trickster – only, in this case, to the greater social good. Though Hari would presumably disagree.

Michael Hodges is the author of “AK-47: the Story of the People’s Gun” (Sceptre)

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

Photo: Getty
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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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