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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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge