Johann Hari is the author of Chasing the Scream, The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Johann walks us through all the alarming and rarely mentioned ways the war on drugs hurts societies and how ending prohibition brings order. Johann details how countries around the world are ending prohibition and the amazing results they are seeing as a result.
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[1:31] – Why rats only choose drugs when they are alone and unhappy
[10:37] – What happens to the drug market in MD when a dealer gets arrested?
[14:40] – Johann discusses Arnold Rothstein and Rosalio Reta
[22:31] – Do humans have an innate desire to experience altered reality
[37:34] – The results of drug decriminalization in Switzerland and Portugal
[45:13] – How to find Johann’s Book, Chasing The Scream.
Matthew: Hi, I’m Matthew Kind. Every Monday and Wednesday look for a fresh episode where I’ll take you behind the scenes and interview the leaders of the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at www.cannainsider.com. That’s www.cannainsider.com. Do you know that feeling when you sense opportunity, when you see something before most people and you just know it will be successful, then you're ready. Ready for CannaInsider Consulting. Learn more at www.canninsider.com/consulting. Now here's your program.
Today’s guest is Johann Hari. He has written a captivating book called Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. If you’re like me and you feel like you had a good understanding on the genesis of the war on drugs, you’re about to be enlightened. Welcome to CannaInsider Johann.
Johann: Hi Matt, lovely to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Matthew: To give listeners a sense of geography, can you tell us where you are in the world today?
Johann: I am in fact in London at the moment.
Johann: London in England I should say as you can probably tell from my voice.
Johann: Now I want to jump into Chasing the Scream, but before we do let’s talk about an article you wrote for the Huffington Post this year called the Likely Cause of Addiction has been Discovered and is not What You Think. This article has been shared over a million times I believe, and what did you uncover here and it obviously resonated with a lot of people? What about that article has people talking so much?
Johann: Well it’s a short extract from the book, and I guess… so I discuss it in much more detail in the book, but I guess it’s now a hundred years since drugs were first banned. And four years ago when I started writing about… started writing the book, I think I realized I knew that we were coming up to this centenary, and in a way I thought I knew a lot about this subject. I’ve written about it for a long time. It had been in my life for a long time. One of my earliest memories was trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to and as I got older realizing we had drug addiction in my family. But actually I realize that there were just loads of basic questions about this issue that I didn’t know the answer to like why were drugs banned a hundred years ago? Why do we continue with this war on drug users and drug addicts even though so many of us can see it can’t work? What do the alternatives really look like and what really causes drug use and drug addiction?
When I was looking for these answers just for myself, I realized I couldn’t find them in the books I was reading that too often we discuss this in a really abstract way, you know, as if life is a philosophy seminar, and we could talk about it in this very abstract way. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to find out… I wanted to find out how these, the answers to these questions have really changed real people’s lives. So I ended up going on this big journey across nine different countries and spending time with lots of different people from a transsexual crack dealer in Brownsville, Brooklyn to you know, to the hit man for the deadliest Mexican drug cartel, to the only country that’s decriminalized all drugs from cannabis to crack. And I guess what I discovered is almost everything we think we know about this subject is wrong. Drugs aren’t what we think they are. Addiction is not what we think it is. The drug war is not what we think it is, and the alternatives to the drug war aren’t what we think they.
And I guess the one that most surprised me was the one that you asked about first which is about addiction. You know if you’d said to me four years ago, I don’t know, what causes 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. You know we’ve been told, you know, it seems kind of obvious right. We’ve been told this story for a hundred years. It’s become part of our common sense. We think that if you, me and the next 20 people who walk past your door all used heroin together, on day 21 we would all be heroin addicts because there are chemical hooks in the heroin that at the end of it our body would start to physically need.
The first thing that alerts me to the fact there’s something not right about that story was when it was explained to me if after this interview you or I step out onto the street, and you know, I’m hit by a car and I break my hip, I’ll be taken to hospital. It’s quite likely I’d be giving a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It’s medically pure heroin. It’s much stronger than you would ever buy on the street because it’s not got all the contaminants that drug dealers inevitably put into it. And then you or me, if that happens, will be given that diamorphine, that heroin for quite a long period of time. Anyone listening to this, anywhere in the developed world, lots of people near you are totally, legally being given heroin in hospitals.
If what we believe about addiction is right, if the story we’ve been told for a hundred years is right, what should happen? Those people, at least some of them, should leave hospital as heroin addicts. They should try to score on the streets. There have been studies of this, that doesn’t happen. You will have noticed your grandmother was not turned into a junkie by her hip replacement operation. When I learned that it just seemed so odd to me that even though the facts behind is so robust, I didn’t really know what to do with it until I went and interviewed a guy called Bruce Alexander who is a professor in Vancouver. And incredibly important figure in the world of addiction, and I think has really revolutionized how we think about it.
Bruce explained to me, the theory of addiction that you and I have in our heads and almost everyone has in their heads comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th Century. They’re really simple experiments. Your listeners can do them at home if they’re feeling a bit sadistic. You get a rat and you put it in a cage, and you give it 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. So there you go, that’s the theory of addiction. You might remember there was a famous partnership for drug free America.
Matthew: Sure, sure.
Johann: Advert, yeah this thing like, you know, it will happen to you. In the 70s Bruce came along and said hang on a minute. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage where it’s got nothing to do except use these drugs. Let’s try this differently. So Bruce built “Rat Park” which is a different kind of cage. And Rat Park is basically heaven for rats. Anything a rat could want in life is in Rat Park. It’s got cheese. It’s got colored balls. It’s got tunnels, but crucially it’s got loads of friends. It can have loads of sex, anything a rat wants. And they’ve got both the water bottles, the drugged water and the normal water, but here’s the fascinating thing. In Rat Park the rats don’t like the drugged water. They hardly ever use it, and none of them ever use it in a way that looks compulsive. None of them ever overdose. There’s really import human examples I can tell you about in a second if you want, but what Bruce says is that this shows that both the right wing and left wing theories of addiction are wrong.
The right wing theory is that it’s a moral failing, you know, you indulge yourself, you know, you indulge yourself, you are a hedonist, all of that. The left wing theory is your brain gets hijacked. You get taken over. You’re left powerless. What Bruce says is it’s not your morality and it’s not your brain. To a much larger degree than we’ve appreciated before, addiction is an adaptation to your environment.
Matthew: Wow that’s crazy.
Johann: There’s huge implications for that. I mean there’s a guy called Peter Cohan, he’s a professor in the Netherlands, who says, you know, we shouldn’t even use the term addiction. We should think of it as bonding. Human beings have an innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy we’ll bond with each other and with the people around us. But when you can’t do that because you’re isolated or traumatized or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that gives you a sense of pleasure relief. Now that could be, you know, it could be gambling. It could be cocaine, it could be pornography, but you will bond with something that gives you some sense of pleasure because that’s what we have to do.
And this different theory of addiction has massive implications for the drug war. You know, the drug war is based on the idea that the drug is what causes the problem, and so we need to physically eradicate the drug from the world. If in fact the vast majority of people who use that drug don’t develop addiction, if in fact it’s isolation and trauma that are the largest drugs of addiction, suddenly the fact that our whole approach looks different, because what we do at the moment is we take people who are addicts if they’re isolated and traumatize, and we isolate and traumatize them further thinking it will make them stop.
You know, I went out with a group of women in Arizona who were forced to go out on a chain gang wearing t-shirts saying I was a drug addict and dig graves. You know, we do that to them and actually okay that’s an extreme thing, but actually that’s pretty much what we do to addicts all over the world. We humiliate them, stigmatize them and cut them off. You know, and those women will never get a job again because they’ve got criminal records. They don’t jobs in the legal economy. We certainly do that to addicts all over the United States and in Britain. And you know in that prison at one point I asked to go to been shown solitary confinement block which they use a lot, The Hole it’s called. And I went to The Hole, and there were women in these tiny little stone cells and were put there for the month for like the most minor infractions. And I suddenly thought this is the closest you could ever get to a literal human reenactment of the experiment that guaranteed addiction with rats. And this is what we do thinking it will make people stop, but also has implications I think, much wider implications, than just drug policy.
We’ve created a society where for a lot of our fellow citizens life is… life looks a lot more like that first cage and a lot less like Rat Park. You know we talk a lot in addiction about individual recovery and that’s really important, but we need to talk much more about social recovery. Something’s gone wrong with us, not just as individuals, but as a group and I think we need to think differently about that too.
Matthew: Wow that’s fascinating and somewhat unintuitive, but once explained it makes sense. You’ve come up with a lot of unintuitive ways to think about the war on drugs and how we can think about better. Can you talk a little bit about your findings in your book about what happened in Maryland when drug dealer’s arrested?
Johann: Yeah, you know, the book is told through the stories of people I met or got to know or researched and learned about, and they’re really a broad range of people. One of them is a cop I got to know in Baltimore called Lea Maddox. He’s really an amazing person. Lea signed up to be a cop with one reason in mind. Her best friend, Lisa, who she’d know since she was a kid was murder by what she believed was a drug gang, and the day Lisa’s body was found Lea went and demanded the sign up papers and she went into the cops with one goal and one goal only which was to destroy and break drug gangs.
And for years she obsessively enforces the drug laws. She will bust people just for using a joint. But Lea’s really an honest person and Lea started to notice two things that kind of troubled her. One was the people they arrested were mainly African Americans, even though African Americans we know, and there’s lots of evidence and they’re more likely to be drug users or drug dealers than anyone else in America, and Lea really isn’t a racist so she was troubled by that. The second thing was even more troubling for her which was if you’re a cop and you arrest a, I don’t know, a rapist, the less week there’s less rape in your town. If you bust a drug dealer, Lea noticed two things, firstly there’s no less drug dealing, right? There’s someone on the corner the next day. The drug price doesn’t go up. So we know that, you’re not disrupting the supply.
But what struck her stranger was the murder rate actually goes up, and this is a pretty consistent finding. It was Lea’s anecdotal observation, but it’s proven if you do a drug bust, the murder rate increases and that’s basically because when you ban drugs they don’t’ disappear. They’re transferred from doctors and pharmacists to armed criminal gangs. And those armed criminal gangs work different from the doctors and pharmacists. If you or me walk into a doctors or a pharmacist to try to steal their prescription drugs, they’ll call the police. The police will take us a way. So that pharmacy doesn’t need to be violent or intimidating right because they’re operating with law and they have recourse to the law. If we go out to a local coke or weed dealer and try to rob them, obviously they can’t ring the cops. The cops would arrest them, so they have to be violent and intimidating. And they have to establish their patch by violence and they have to maintain it by violence.
And if you knock one of them out either, you know, they’re killed or you arrest them, what you do is you trigger a turf war for control of their patch, and there’s a huge amount of violence until someone emerges on top. The Nobel Prize Winning economist, Milton Freedman, calculated there are 10,000 additional murders every year in the United States that are the result of this war for drugs of dealers fighting out and people getting caught in the middle. And Lea, you know, Lea had gotten into this to bankrupt the drug gangs, and suddenly she realizes oh god, actually I’m the one keeping them in business. You know prohibition and the drug war are what keep them going. The alternative is to reclaim that trade for pharmacists and doctors is the way countries that I went to have tried with remarkable results.
So Lea quit the police and she retrained and now she’s a lawyer who spends a lot of her time trying to get the convictions of people like the people she arrested quashed to end the drug war. She’s a really extraordinary person.
Matthew: So this is crazy and unbelievable. You make the point that the DNA of gangs that deal in illegal drugs is to create unspeakable violence because that’s kind of how they stake out their patch. Can you tell us a little bit about Rosalio Reta in Mexico in the Zeta gang and maybe a little bit about Arnold Rothstein and how they kind of play that part?
Johann: Yeah. I basically, you know, Rosalio is someone who really… I think about him a lot. I wanted to understand this dynamic. Obviously if you think about housing project in the US right and there is going to be one here, if one is listening to this, where say 5 to 10 percent of the economy is controlled by armed criminal gangs in the drug trade. So that place is going to be a really miserable place to live. If you look at northern Mexico where I went, it’s 70 percent of the economy, 7-0 percent. So basically you just end up with a situation where the armed criminal gangs can pay better wages than the states so they end up owning the cops, and they own the state and they hijack the whole infrastructure.
One of the ways I tell that story in my book is I got to know and interviewed a guy called Rosalio Reta who between the ages of 13 and 17 was a hitman for the deadliest Mexican drug cartel and killed about, butchered and beheaded about 70 people. And I went and interviewed him. He’s now in prison in Tyler County in Texas in constant solitary confinement because he’s the only person who’s ever been in that kind of cartel who can kind of tell what it’s like from the inside and hasn’t been killed. So every time he’s ever taken out of solitary, he’s immediately stabbed by one of the other prisoners who knows they’ll get loads of money from the Zetas for killing him.
Rosolio grew up in Laredo which is just on the American side of the border, but it’s kind of twinned with Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican side. And he would kind of go back and forth, you know, when he was a little boy. He’s about 26-27 now, but when he was a little boy he would go back and forth across the border like most people do just to buy candies and things. And he was recruited when he was 13 to be a hitman. They like having, they like using kids. They call them the expendables partly because kids that age don’t really understand death in the same way I think. And yeah they kind of kept him very heavily coked up and this guy Miguel Trevino who was the, at that time, number three in the Zetas, later rose to be number one in the Zetas. And exactly that dynamic you’re asking about which is right into your question, so Rosolio did unbelievably horrific acts of violence.
It’s important to understand this has nothing inherently to do with drugs. This is to do with prohibition right. Ask yourself where are the violent alcohol dealers today? They don’t exist right. They did exist under alcohol prohibition. It’s not that they were drunk. Al Capone wasn’t an alcoholic and he wasn’t using alcohol in heavy amounts and therefore committing violence. Today the drinks isle at Wal-Mart doesn’t go and shoot the people who work in the local liquor store in the face, right. Even though nothing’s changed about alcohol, it’s the same drug that people were killing each other over during prohibition in Chicago. What’s changed is the legal regulatory framework.
Often we talk about, you know, drug related violence, and people think what that means is someone using drugs, losing it and killing people right. In the book I cite, there’s a really important study of this by Professor Paul Goldstein who looked at everything that was described as a drug related murder in New York City in 1986. The exact figures are in the book, I’m saying this from memory, but I think they’re right. Two percent of the killings were like where someone had used drugs and lost it, right, or killed someone and there was drugs in their system. I think 7 percent were an addict who was kind of committing a property crime in order to feed the habit and something went wrong. And all the rest, the overwhelming majority were armed criminal gangs killing each other to gain control of the trade, right. So actually the overwhelming majority, they’re not drug related. If we banned milk and people still wanted to buy milk and therefore criminal gangs provided it, the milk trade would work this way. Would we call those milk related murders. Well you could, I mean, it would make as much sense.
But what you get with that dynamic and I tell this story about the inside of the… it’s Rosolio’s life inside the cartels, is often when you look at what’s happened to northern Mexico, and it’s really pretty scary when I went there, but often when you look at what’s happened in northern Mexico, it looks like, kind of like Jeffery Dahmer style psychosis, right, it’s so extreme the violence that you just think oh, this is just a bunch of psychos. It’s not. It’s the function of the system. The way it works is if you’re the guy who’s prepared to breach the moral taboo a little bit more than the other guys, you will gain a brief competitive advantage. So if you’re the first person to say, we’re not going to kill the other side, we’re going to kill the other side’s pregnant women, then you get a brief competitive advantage. If you’re the person that says, actually we’re just going to kill their pregnant women. We’ll kill them and put them on YouTube, put it on YouTube, then you get a brief competitive advantage.
If you’re the first person to say, you know we won’t just kill them and put it on YouTube, we’ll cut off their faces, sew their faces onto a football and mail the football to their relatives, which is something that actually happens, then you get a brief competitive advantage because the nature of a prohibition based system is whoever is prepared to push the violence further will control a little bit more of the trade. So this insanity, and clearly it requires a degree of sadism for people to do this obviously, but that whole cruelty and violence is the product of the system we’re in. Where else, what other system would have given 13 year old Rosolio Reta an enormous financial incentive, like an enormous financial incentive, to go and butcher and behead people? Where else would have taken, what other system would have taken a 13 year old boy and taken him to a training camp where he was taught the mechanics of how you dissolve a corpse right? Where would that have happened.
I think that’s where about I tell the story of a transsexual crack dealer in Brownsville, Brooklyn called Chino Hardin who was conceived when his mother who was a crack addict was raped by his father who was an NYPD officer. So he’s a child of the drug war in the purest sense. And Chino, you know, is one of the most empathetic and decent people I know, but from the age of 13 when he starts selling crack on his corner, he’s drawn into the requirements of violence. You know you cannot be empathetic in that situation. You have to be terrifying or you’re going to be destroyed. And these dynamics are playing out, not just in, clearly what’s happening in northern Mexico is much more extreme because it’s a larger portion of the economy, but these dynamics are playing out pretty much everywhere in the developed world except the places I went to where there have been experiments with legalization and you just see this whole dynamic bleed away.
Matthew: Gosh that’s so crazy to think that, you know, the prohibition causes the violence because you’re right we’re so engrained to think it’s the drug. It’s the drug that’s causing the people to change, but it’s really prohibition. The direct result of that is this compounding and escalating violence because you’re saying if you have that escalating sense of violence, you have a competitive advantage in the trade of this prohibited substance, whatever it may be; milk, heroin, alcohol. Now is there an innate sense for humans that they just want to experience altered reality? This is something we can’t legislate a way or you know, point a gun at group or a population and say don’t get high, don’t get drunk. It’s just something that’s part of humans that we need. Would you say that’s accurate?
Johann: One of the most interesting people I interviewed was this guy called Ronald K. Siegel who is a very distinguished retired professor at UCLA who advised like three American Presidents, the World Health Organization, and one of the things Ronald K. Siegel spent his career doing was giving drugs to animals and monitoring animal drug use. And basically it turns out this applies not only to humans, but pretty much to most living species. You know elephants get drunk. Birds get drunk. You know, mongoose’s like hallucinogens. You know the massive range of animals that get, you know, mashed up in all sorts of different ways. And he argues, I think he’s right, the intoxication impulse is a really deep and innate human drive, and it’s ineradicable.
You know you look at a little kid who will spin around and around and around to make themselves dizzy even though they know it will make them sick, that’s the first manifestation, and all children do that. It’s been observed that all kids do that. That’s the first manifestation of the intoxication impulse. Obviously it manifests differently in different people, but there has never been a human society where humans did not seek out intoxicants in the environment and use them. The only society where there were no naturally occurring intoxicants were the poor Inuit in the Arctic, and they would starve themselves to get altered mental states because this is just so deep in human nature. I tell the story in the book of the Temple of Eleusis. In ancient Greece, 20 miles away from Athens, every year there was this extraordinary rivalry at the Temple of Eleusis where people would go for this massive drug party where they would this hallucinogen and they would experience states of ecstasy. And you know, it sounds pretty much like Burning Man, and it was forcibly shut down when the Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity.
Yeah this is a really deep and innate human impulse. And one of these that’s kind of surprising to me in the research actually is the, you know, quite how large the proportion of this was. If I said to most people, I mean your listenership is going to be more informed on this matter, but you know most people you say to them, what proportion of currently banned drug use do you think does no harm to anyone, doesn’t damage their health, doesn’t make them addicted, anything right? The actual figure is 90 percent, 9-0 percent and that doesn’t come from like the Drug Policy Alliance or a group supporting drug reform. That comes from the UN Office of Drug Control who are the main drug war body in the world, even they had to admit that a few years back, although I’ve noticed they’ve taken it down from their website. Rather embarrassed that people picked up on it.
So it’s important to understand this is a deep human impulse, and in the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, it’s a healthy impulse, you know, they have a good time. They find a chemical, they have a good time with it and they don’t get addicted. It doesn’t damage their body. It doesn’t damage their mind. Great, now the other 10 percent who are addicted which includes some people very close to me, including some of my closest relatives, they are in fact people who were seeking out the drugs to deal with a deep sense of pain that preceded the drug use. You can look at this. I cite a really interesting study that looked at, it was a really interesting and weird study, it look at five year olds, and it just monitored five year olds with their parents. I think it was only the mothers.
Basically you get a five year old, you put it with its mother and you give them like a task to do together, right, and you know building blocks or whatever. And they monitor them literally, I think it’s for five minutes. It was a very short period of time. And they monitor basically how supportive the mother is, how good their relationship is, how connected they are. And then it just follows, it goes back them when they’re 18 and figures out if they’re addicts. And what it finds is just by looking at five year old and how connected they are with their parent for five minutes when they’re five, I forget the figures. They’re in the book, but you can predict to an incredible degree of accuracy whether they will be addicts, you know, years 13 years later when they grow up.
So what that tells us is, and it really relates to Rat Park and what we were talking about there, addiction is a very real tragedy. Addiction is not the earthquake. Addiction is one of the aftershocks of underlying pain and trauma. Now aftershocks are bad. An aftershock can bring a building down after an earthquake. It’s not a trivial thing. It’s a very very serious things. But it’s important to understand what the real cause of it is and what explains, you know, I guess I would say, you know, if you want to think about this in their own lives. I forget the drug laws for a second right, I’ve got in front of me, I’m feeling a little bit ill so I’ve got one of those dissolvable vitamin C things that you put in water and you drink it.
You’ve probably got a drink in front of you, right?
Johann: Totally forget the drug laws, totally legally you and I could be drinking vodka now, right. We could both be drunk. You and I probably got enough money in the bank that we could go off and be drunk, buy loads of vodka and be drunk for three months, right, and never sober up, you know, until our money runs out, right. We’re not doing that and very few people do that. Not because anyone externally is stopping us, but because we’ve got things we want to be present for in our lives. We’ve got jobs we love. We’ve got people we love. We’ve got things we want to do. You know the reason why most addicts do what they do is because they can’t bear to be present in their lives because their lives are too painful. And the answer is to make their lives less painful, and there’s a place where they did that, you know, Portugal and the results were incredible and I can talk about that if you don’t mind.
Matthew: Sure, sure, please.
Johann: Yeah, yeah it’s fascinating that you know, totally honest, I put off going to the places where they’ve tried the alternatives, the drug war for one, and I was thinking to myself why was I doing that. And I guess I kind of thought what if I go to the places where they’ve tried the alternatives and that doesn’t’ work either, then this will be a book about and irredeemable human tragedy or just a, you know, a very deeply engrained human tragedy. But then I went to the places; Switzerland, Portugal, Uruguay, you know, I interviewed people from Colorado and Washington who led the successful campaigns. And it was really kind of extraordinary.
Portugal to me was one of the most striking examples, oh and Vancouver as well. Portugal was one of the most striking examples. And in the year 2000 Portugal had one of the worse drug problems in Europe, indeed in the world. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, just kind of mind blowing. And every year they tried the American way more. They arrested more people. They imprisoned more people, and every year the problem got worse. And one day the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition got together and they basically said look, obviously we can’t carry on like this right. We can’t, you know, we can’t have an ever increasing proportion of our population addicted to heroin.
So they decided to set up a panel of scientists and doctors, and basically they said to them go away, look at the evidence and tell us what would genuinely solve this problem and they did something really smart. They agreed in advance to do whatever the panel recommended. So it just took it at politics. So the panel goes away. It looks at all the evidence. Led by an amazing man called João Goulão, and they come back, and they said, decriminalize all drugs from cannabis to crack, but and this was the crucial thing, take all the money we currently spend on arresting and imprisoning drug addicts and spend it on turning their lives around, on learning the lesson of Rat Park which is reconnecting them this society.
So partly that was things that we think of as treatment in America and Britain like, you know, residential rehab and psychological support, and that does have real value. But the biggest part of the program is something completely different. It was subsidized jobs for addicts and microloans for addicts so they could set up businesses. So let’s say you’re a mechanic, got an addiction problem. When you’re ready, go to a garage and they’ll say if you employ this guy for a year, we’ll pay half his wages. Really simple, the goal was to make sure that every addict in Portugal had something to wake up for in the morning and something to get out of bed for. And it’s been nearly 15 years and the results; injecting drug use is down by 50 percent, 5-0 percent in Portugal. Overall addiction is down, overdose stats are massively down, HIV transmission among addicts is massively down. And one of the ways you know it’s worked so well is almost no one wants to go back.
I went and interviewed this guy called Joao Figueira who led the opposition to the decriminalization. He’s the top drug cop in Portugal. And he said to me, everything I said would happen didn’t happen, and everything the other side said would happen did, and he talked about how he felt ashamed having seen this work in practice that he had spent 20 years arresting and harassing drug users before the decriminalization because it didn’t work and this way did. And he hoped the whole world followed Portugal’s example. And it was so exciting to see that these alternatives were working. It’s important to understand there are limitations to what they done in Portugal as well.
So in Portugal they’ve decriminalized use, but they haven’t legalized sale. So the drug trade is still in the hands of criminal gangs. The best way to put it is they’ve shut down orange is the new black, but they still have Breaking Bad, right. But this is not perfect which is why you have to look at legalization. And legalization does not mean a kind of free-for-all. You know, it doesn’t mean having a crack isle in CVS, right. There are places that have tried legalization and it’s working extremely well. Obviously your listeners will know very well about the extent of the marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington. And you know, it’s very revealing if you look at 53 percent of people voted for the legalization, but now support of legalization is way above that level which means that when people saw it in practice, they liked it and they thought, you know, a higher number of people thought it worked than before, significantly higher.
In Switzerland to where they’ve legalized heroin for addicts it’s a different model, significantly different model. And the way it works is if you’re a heroin addict, if you go to a doctor, the doctor will refer you to a clinic and that clinic will provide, will give you heroin in the clinic. You have to go there. And it’s really fascinating to go there. It looks like a kind of, I went to one of the ones in Geneva. It looks like a kind of fancy Manhattan hair dressers. You turn up and people go into a little booth and they inject the heroin, and then they leave to go to work because they overwhelmingly get jobs. When the chaos of street use ends people get their lives together. They help them get housing. They help them get employment, and what’s fascinating is you can stay on that program as long as you want, right. They’ll never kick you off. There’s no pressure to reduce your dose. But what’s fascinating is most of the people on the program, the overwhelming majority, just choose to reduce their dose and eventually stop because their lives get better, and they can bear to be present in them. So you don’t want to on smack the whole time if your life is getting better.
Matthew: They’re creating their own Rat Park.
Johann: Exactly, and that’s a good way of putting it. And you know there’s obviously, they’re not going to drug dealers, right. Heroin dealing, you know, was just absolutely decimated by this because why would you go to a street dealer to buy a much more expensive contaminated product when you can go to the doctor and get a much cheaper, purer product. Obviously you don’t do that. So what we see is, you know, there are models of legalization that work, and this is a much more sensible way to spend the money. And it’s interesting because Switzerland, you know, when I’m explaining it to Americans, I’m trying to say Switzerland is an extremely right wing country. I’m a Switzerland citizen as well as a British citizen. Switzerland is an extremely right wing, this is not like… this isn’t like San Francisco voting to legalize heroin. This is like Utah voting to legalize heroin, and they did it.
It’s very interesting the way they won the argument. Their campaign was led by an incredible person called Ruth Dreifuss who was the first female president of Switzerland and who I interviewed. Really she is an amazing person. And she ran it not on a kind of liberty based argument. A very different way, and I think such an argument that we really need to use in the drug reform movement in the US. And it was actually an order based argument. Everyone in the world where legalization has prevailed generally liberty based arguments which is like it’s your body, you can do what you want with it, which I am philosophically sympathetic to, just don’t get much traction. People don’t like those arguments. What works are order based argument, what Switzerland is.
The drug war means anarchy. It means unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown users all in the dark. Legalization means order. It means we take these criminals. We bankrupt them. We take these chaotic addicts and we put them in nice clean clinics where they’re not in our public places screwing things up and being chaotic and spreading disease and all those other things. Legalization means the restoration of order. It means the opposite of anarchy. And that really, you know, Swiss people voted twice in referenda by really huge margins; 70 percent to keep heroin legal for addicts for precisely that reason because of that argument. It wasn’t because of compassion or anything else. My Swiss relatives, you know, they met Michelle Bachmann that led Bernie Sanders. They thought they were being nice, you know, and also because of the enormous fall in street crime. I think the figure was, there was a 93 percent fall in burglary. It’s something absolutely extraordinary, once that was introduced. Again it’s very striking. That was extremely controversial before it was introduced. Once it was introduced, it worked incredibly well. It’s not very controversial anymore in Switzerland.
Matthew: The one thing I worry about here is we have entrenched interests, pharmaceutical companies, private prison systems, prison guard unions that don’t seem to welcome this ending of prohibition. Do you see that dissolving just by the mere fact that it’s so successful in Switzerland and Uruguay and Portugal?
Johann: No it’s not going to dissolve. There are corporations who have one thing. They are legally obligated to do one thing and one thing only which is maximize profit for their shareholders. They’re going to carry on doing that. They’re never going to stop. What we have to do is overwhelm them, and we have to… which of course has happened. If you look at, you know, all sorts of things, corporations are stopped from doing all sorts of things. Think about what the United States was like at the turn of the 20th Century what corporations were allowed to do then. There are loads of things, for example, promote tobacco to children which they’re not allowed to do now. That’s not because those companies saw the light. It’s because ordinary citizens organized and demanded that these companies be stopped by the government from doing, and that’s what we need to have when it comes to the drug war. They’re not going to go away. They’re not going to stop doing what they do, but we need to make our voices louder than their voices so that the government has to regulate them and stop them from committing the most kind of egregious acts.
And you know anyone listening to this who thinks oh that’s such a tall order, you know, I would tell them the story about one of the most amazing people I met in the journey for my book. And in the year 2000 there was a homeless street addict in Vancouver called Bud Osborne. And he was in a place called the downtown East Side of Vancouver which was a notorious area, has the largest concentration of addicts in North America and possibly the world. It’s regarded as like the place at the end of the line in the city at the end of the line in North America. And Bud was watching his friends die all around him. People would shoot up behind dumpsters so the cops wouldn’t see them, but obviously, you know, if you’re hiding so no one can see you and you start to overdose then no one sees you. Your body is found a day later. You die.
And Bud thought I can’t just watch this happen. I can’t just watch my friends die all around me, but he also thought I’m a homeless junkie, what can I do. And he had a really simple idea. Got together with a group of the addicts and he said, when we’re not using which is most of the time even for hardcore addicts, why don’t we have a timetable and why don’t we just… not with the police, not with nurses, not anyone else just us, why don’t we patrol the alleyways, and when we spot someone O.D.-ing just call an ambulance, right. It’s a really simple idea. And so they started to do it, these addicts, just on their own. And within a few months the overdose rate started to really significantly fall in the downtown East Side which is great. Because, you know, it mean people were live who would otherwise have died, but it also meant the addicts started to think about themselves differently.
They started to think oh maybe we’re not like the pieces of rubbish people say we are. Maybe we can do something. So they started to organize. First thing they did is they would turn up at public meetings to talk about the menace of the addicts, and they would sit in the back and they’d… after a while they would kind of put up their hands and they go oh, I think you’re talking about us. Is there anything we can do differently. And sometimes people would be really angry and sometimes they’d, you know, they’d say things like oh you leave your needles lying around. And Bud said, that’s fine we’ll extend the patrol, we’ll pick up the needles and they started doing that. And as they got more involved, Bud had learned that in Frankfort in Germany they had opened safe injecting rooms where addicts could use the drugs legally and be monitored by doctors and that it had virtually ended overdosing in Frankfort. And he was like great we got to do that here, but there had been nothing like that in North American since Harry Anslinger, the birth of the drug war in the 1930s.
But Bud thought alright we’ll start demanding it, and they decided to at this very large and dedicated group of addicts, their friends and supporters decided to target the mayor of Vancouver. It was a man called Phillip Owen, he was a very unlikely person to target. Phillip Owen was a rich right wing businessman from a very wealthy family who had no idea about addiction and so the addicts should be taken and forcibly detained at the local military base and never let out, this was the idea where he was coming from. If you pitch at Mitt Romney, that’s kind of like the American equivalent to Philip Owen. And they started… everywhere Phillip Owen went, they turned up in huge numbers and they had with them a coffin, and the coffin said something like who will die next, Phillip Owen, before you will put a safe injecting room. And this goes on for years. And they will say things like at public meetings like, you know, do you remember our friend who asked you a few months ago who would die next Phillip Owen before you open a safe injecting room, well she was the next person who died. She’s dead now because you didn’t open a safe injecting room.
And after 10 years, totally to his credit, Phillip Owen says who the hell are these people and incognito he goes to the downtown East Side and he just spoke to loads of addicts, and he was totally blown away. He had no idea their lives were like this. He had no idea there were people in such pain, and he then went and met Milton Freedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist who was really good on the drug war partly because he had grown up in Chicago under alcohol prohibition. And Phillip Owen came back and he held a press conference and he had the Chief of Police and a Coroner and a representative of the addicts, and he said he was never going to speak about addiction again without an addict present, and he was going to open the first safe injecting room in North America and the most compassionate drug policies in North America and that things were going to change.
And Phillip Owen opened the first safe injecting room, and his conservative party was so horrified they deselected him and his political career ended, but they selected a right wing candidate who was opposed to it and he was beaten by the more liberal candidate who then won and kept the injecting room open. And when I went to the downtown East Side and interviewed the people involved the injecting room had been open for 10 years and the results were in. Deaths by overdose were down by 80 percent, and average life expectancy had increased by ten years which are like, you don’t get figures like that in epistemology except when a war ends which is what this was. And Phillip Owen told me and it was the proudest thing he ever did and he would sacrifice his entire political career all over again. And Bud, who I got to know well, and you can hear the interviews with him on the website www.chasingthescream.com he died last year. He was only in his early 60s, but he had been a homeless addict during a drug and it takes a toll on you.
And when Bud died they sealed off the streets of the downtown East Side where he had lived as a homeless person, and they had this incredible memorial service for Bud. And there were lots of people in that crowd who knew that they were alive because of what Bud did. You know as a direct result of the activism, the Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that addicts have an inalienable right to life and that includes the right to have a safe place to use drugs. That can never be taken away now. Anyone listening to this thinks uh, the drug war is such a big thing, the forces ranged against us are huge. I would just say to them, you are so much more powerful than you know. It’s hard to think of a more disempowered person than a homeless street addict. Bud didn’t wait for a leader. He didn’t wait for someone else. He didn’t ask permission from anyone. He didn’t sit there and ring his hands and say oh it’s so hard. He just started, and because of what he did an enormous number of people who would have died is still alive. If he can do it, we can do it.
Matthew: Great points Johann. I think that’s a good place to close. What a wonderful summary of your book and your travels and your discovery you’ve given us. Again that book’s called Chasing the Scream. It’s available at www.amazon.com and most places online. How else can listeners find your work Johann?
Johann: They can go to www.chasingthescream.com and they can hear all the people we’ve pretty much talked about like Rosolio Reta, the serial killer and Bud and Chino and Lea Maddox, the cop in Baltimore. You can hear interviews with all of them at the website as well. And you can hear like, you know, I think particularly people are interested in marijuana, you know, the story of why marijuana was first banned. It was a crazy story. The story of the man who launched the modern war on drugs, Harry Anslinger. The story of how he stalked and killed Billy Holiday the jazz singer and just the, you know, and what happens when you legalize marijuana. So yeah loads of stories there as well.
Matthew: And this audience is definitely partial to listening to books. That’s how I have Chasing the Scream on the audible app.
Johann: Oh great.
Matthew: Just so everybody knows when you sign up to be with Audible they give you one book for free. It’s a great first book to get if you like to listen to audio books.
Johann: Crazy I probably shouldn’t say this, but if you sign up, you claim that as your free book and then you cancel, you get to keep the free book. So you can in fact get the audio book for nothing if you want to. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. I’ve been hearing really good things about the audio book. Apparently the guy who read it is really good.
Johann: I was slightly worried because the poor guy has to do like, you know, Mexican voices, Portuguese voices, he has to do the voice of a transsexual crack dealer from Brownsville Brooklyn. He has to do the voice of the president of Uruguay.
Matthew: Yes. It’s a wide range.
Johann: Yeah it’s slightly torturous for him, and he has to be my posh English voice. It’s very, yeah, problematic. I feel sorry for him.
Matthew: Well Johann, thank you so much for coming on CannaInsider we really appreciate it.
Johann: Great. Thank you so much.
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