“Everything We Know About the Drug War & Addiction is Wrong”


‘Chasing The Scream’ by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury Circus, 2015) should be required reading for anyone interested in the treatment and prevention of drug addiction. It takes a new look at the causes of what is now a global pandemic, and the failing ‘Drug War’ which spreads the infection.


This is a transcript of part of the above interview by Democracy Now!:

Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari book cover

JOHANN HARI: Well, it’s fascinating. If you had said to me four years ago, when I started on the really long journey through nine countries to write this book, “What causes, say, heroin addiction?” I would have looked at you like you were a little bit simple-minded, and I would have said, “Well, heroin causes heroin addiction.” We’ve been told a story for a hundred years that is so deep in our culture that we just take it for granted. We basically think if you, me and—I guess there’s about 20 people in this office—if we all took heroin for 20 days, by day 21, because there are chemical hooks in heroin, our bodies would physically need the heroin, and we would be heroin addicts. That’s what we think heroin addiction is.

The first thing that—I had a really personal reason to want to look into this: We had a lot of addiction in my family. One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. And one of the first things, when I was looking at what really causes addiction, that alerted me that that story may—there’s something wrong with that story, someone just explained to me, if one of us steps out here today and we get hit by a car, right, God forbid, and we break our hip, we’ll be taken to hospital. There’s a very good chance we’ll be given a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It’s much better heroin than you’ll score on the streets, because it’s 100 percent pure as opposed to, you know, massively contaminated. You’ll be given it for quite a long period of time. That is happening in every hospital in the United States. All over the developed world, people are being given lots of heroin for long periods of time. You will have noticed something odd about that: Your grandmother was not turned into a junkie by her hip operation. If what we thought about addiction was right, those people should be leaving hospital as addicts. In fact, they’re not.

When I learned that, I didn’t really know what to do with it, until I went and met an incredible man called Bruce Alexander, who’s a professor in Vancouver. He explained to me the old theory of addiction comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They were actually featured in a famous anti-drugs ad from the ’80s in America. Very simple experiment your viewers can do at home if they’re feeling a little bit sadistic: You get a rat, and you put it in a cage, and it’s got two water bottles. One is just water, and one is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and almost always kill itself. And so, it was concluded, there you go: That’s addiction.

But in the ’70s, Bruce comes along and says, “Well, hang on a minute. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do except drink the drugged water. Let’s do this differently.” So Bruce built Rat Park. Rat Park is like heaven for rats. They’ve got loads of cheese—actually, I don’t think it’s cheese; it’s some very nice food that rats like—loads of colored balls, loads of friends. They can have loads of sex. Anything a rat can want, it’s got in Rat Park. And they’ve got both the water bottles: They’ve got the normal water and the drugged water. But here’s the fascinating thing. They obviously try both the water bottles; they don’t know what’s in them. They don’t like the drugged water. The rats in Rat Park use very little of it. They never overdose. And they never use in a way that looks like addiction or compulsion, which is fascinating. There’s a really interesting human example—there’s loads of human examples, but I can give you a specific one in a minute.

But what Bruce says is this shows that both the right-wing theory of addiction and the left-wing theories are wrong. The right-wing theory is, you know, you’re a hedonist, you party too hard, you know, that you indulge yourself—it’s a moral flaw. The left-wing theory is your brain gets hijacked, you get taken over. What Bruce says is it’s not your morality, it’s not your brain, it’s your cage. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment.

Really—and there’s massive implications of that, but there’s a really interesting human example that was actually going on at the same time as the Rat Park experiment. It’s called the Vietnam War. Twenty percent of American troops in Vietnam were using heroin a lot. And if you look at the news reports from the time, there’s a real panic, because they believed the old theory of addiction. They believed that if you—these troops were going to come home, and you were going to suddenly have enormous numbers of addicts on the streets of the United States. What happened? All the evidence is the vast majority come home and just stop, because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle, where you don’t want to be and you could be killed at any moment, and you go back to your nice life in Wichita, Kansas, with your friends and your family and a purpose in life, it’s the equivalent of being taken from the first cage to the second cage. You go back to your connections.

The full transcript is here.

Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury Circus, 2015)

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