Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

I kind of need everyone to read this book. It’s really smart, and about something really important, and about something that I have a really hard time talking about.

One of the big things that I spend time thinking about and trying to live around is intoxication culture, which is basically the sets of cultural norms that exist around drugs and alcohol. Understanding the extremely fucked up way the war on drugs has been implemented is an important part of understanding and resisting intoxication culture.

So this book which is all about understanding why the war on drugs started and what it’s done is obviously a huge resource. It’s a very thorough, wide ranging book. Hari traveled all over to talk to people and see the different way the war on drugs has impacted the world. It’s very well researched, and goes very in depth. He uses stories of individuals to explain things that are happening on a systemic level. Looking at statistics and populations it can be easy to get impersonal, but Hari always brings it back to people.

The problem with how drugs are controlled and legislated is a huge problem, and it isn’t discussed as much as it should be, and so much of the discourse that is around is really unhelpful, uninformed, or actually damaging.

This should be required reading. It’s the best non-fiction book I’ve read in ages. It manages to be an accessible enjoyable read while explaining an important subject. I got it from the library, but I’m going to buy it so I can make other people in my life read it.

It took until the end of the book when he starts talking about legalization for me to realize what wasn’t quite clicking for me, where Hari and I were approaching these subjects from different directions. He came in with a history of drug use in his family, and accepted the common narrative that illegal drugs are worse than alcohol. I came I with a history of alcoholism in my family, so I know that it can be just as fucked, but the social norms around it are different.  He explains why our current system of criminalization doesn’t work, but he doesn’t really acknowledge how the current way that alcohol is regulated is pretty fucked up as well.

One of my issues with legalization is that if this country can’t manage a functional relationship with alcohol, why would it be able to do much better for other intoxicants? Hari almost touches on this when discussing prescription painkiller abuse, but he never really engages with whether America has a fundamentally unhealthy relationship with both legal and illegal intoxicants, which I’d say is true. Prohibition doesn’t work, but the regulations and culture around alcohol isn’t anything to aspire to. There doesn’t just need to be a legal change in how drugs are criminalized, but a cultural shift in how we approach intoxicants.

This isn’t a flaw of the book, it’s an example of divergent interests. He’s looking at the legalization/prohibition of drugs, while I’ve mostly thought about the social norms around intoxicants. He’s talking about incredibly important things, but doesn’t address everything I care about.

Overall, I loved it. Hari mentioned an ex-boyfriend in the first chapter and knowing that he isn’t straight made me trust him instinctively, which might be weird, but whatever. Figuring out a better way to deal with intoxicants and addiction is something that needs to happen because the current model is so dysfunctional. Having an informative and interesting book like Chasing the Scream as a resource is awesome if that change is going to come.


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