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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

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.