Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
29 January 2015

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.

By Michael Hodges

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

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

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)