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Review of "Chasing the Scream"

By Johann Hari
Bloomsbury USA, 2015
Review by Daniel J. Dunleavy on Sep 5th 2017
Chasing the Scream

Johann Hari is an award-winning British journalist who has written for major news outlets around the world. In Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Hari investigates two major facets of the modern drug problem. On the one hand, he describes the history of and contemporary policies toward psychoactive drug use, highlighting the United States' "War on Drugs". This twentieth century government initiative, which levied strict criminal punishments toward drug-dealers and drug-users domestically and abroad, is contrasted with shifting policies and practices around the world, where various countries are experimenting with different forms of drug legalization and decriminalization. Throughout the book, Hari describes his travels to Portugal, Uruguay, and Canada (among other places), where he interviews various stake-holders (i.e. politicians, policy-makers, law-enforcement officers, drug users, family members) on all sides of the drug-war. On the other hand, Hari explores the leading conceptualizations about the nature and purposes of drug use. He articulates the case for the medical (i.e. disease), social-psychological, and trauma models of drug use, and examines the evidence in support of each. Hari successfully navigates the wealth of empirical research on addiction and relays it to the reader in a concise and easily understood manner. His far-reaching overview of the extensive addiction literature is complemented by interviews with drug experts, such as the psychologist Bruce Alexander (of the classical 'Rat Park' experiments) and physician Gabor Maté (a prominent Canadian doctor who has explored the relationship between childhood trauma and abuse and later drug use). These discussions vacillate between the individual-level and macro-level phenomenon that contribute to and sustain drug use.

Throughout the course of the book, Hari attempts to delineate how these two facets relate to one another; arguing that drug policy impacts how a society treats its drug users and conceptualizes addiction, and that likewise, the way a society conceptualizes drug addiction impacts our personal and political stances toward the legality of drugs. Hari acknowledges the nuances of these debates and consequently does not endorse immediate and full-blown drug legalization. Rather he argues a more conservative case; that some change is warranted, but should reflect the unique needs and circumstances of individual communities and groups. This case-specific change is exemplified by the diverse responses to the "War on Drugs" described in Hari's travels abroad.

Chasing the Scream is a quick-paced and far-reaching discussion about the modern "War on Drugs" and the nature of drug addiction. It is recommended to addiction researchers, students in the helping-professions, to those whose lives have been affected by drug use/drug policies, and to the interested lay-reader. Its biggest strengths are its clear writing-style, breadth of subject matter, and vivid story-telling. Its biggest weaknesses are in regards to its overall depth. Hari sacrifices some nuance in his discussion of addiction theory and the finer points of the empirical literature on drug policy, in order to tell the story of the "War on Drugs" to the general reader. For example, only a handful of pages are devoted to extensive research being done by the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is noted for promoting a disease-model framework of addiction. This perspective could have been more carefully and thoroughly presented, for example with an interview from someone like Nora Volkow (NIDA director and renown psychiatric researcher). New readers to the subjects of addiction and drug policy will want to complement Hari's book with a more formal introduction to the research literature that discusses the social/psychological/trauma models of addiction, as well as the currently entrenched disease model. "Old hands" will likely find the book engaging and should find new insights on this politically and scientifically-contentious issue.


© 2017 Daniel J. Dunleavy


Daniel J. Dunleavy, M.S.W., Doctoral Candidate; Florida State University, College of Social Work