Straight talking: Johann Hari is back with a book on the war on drugs, but can he be trusted?

The journalistic fabricator returns to the limelight with a book on the evils of prohibition - but can he ever recover any credibility at all?

A soldier guards packets of cocaine in Colombia in 2011.  Nestor Silva / AFP
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Late last year, The Daily Beast ran a hatchet job on Russell Brand's "meandering and pretentious" political manifesto Revolution. Towards the end of the meticulous point-by-point takedown, a different kind of grievance is aired: "All of this is less surprising when you discover that much of the research for Revolution was provided by the disgraced journalist Johann Hari, who in 2011 was caught plagiarising multiple columns, accused of inventing quotes, forced to resign his job as a newspaper columnist and had a major British journalism prize (named after George Orwell!) rescinded."

The passage sums up Hari's fall from grace – although doesn't mention that he also maliciously doctored the Wikipedia pages of two rival journalists and categorically denied all allegations of quote-rigging until exposure rendered his protestations hollow. The scandal instantly tarnished The Independent's golden boy. Presumably as both a stab at atonement and a bid to resuscitate his career, Hari eloped to New York to attend journalism school. Since then, any work, such as research for Brand, has been very much behind the scenes. The long-­distance low profile was a shrewd move. Second chances for public figures aren't granted overnight, if at all.

Now Hari returns from his sabbatical with a book. Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs is the result of three years of research conducted over nine countries in an attempt to find answers to questions that had plagued Hari for some time: Why did the drug war start, why does it continue, what is the true cause of addiction? His subject matter is timely (it is 100 years since drugs were banned in the United States) and close to home (family and friends have been addicts and he admits in his introduction to having been hooked on anti-narcolepsy pills). The book comes garlanded with blurbs from commentators and activists (Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Glenn Greenwald) and celebrities with histories of addiction (Stephen Fry, Elton John – and Russell Brand). It has a lot going for it but, being from a man guilty of journalistic malpractice, also has a lot stacked against it.

Opening with the birth of the war on drugs, Hari sketches portraits of its founders, their faces constituting “the Mount Rushmore for drug prohibition”. First up is Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who doggedly fought to eradicate all drugs and branded all addicts as non-white weaklings and criminals. Hari then turns to Billie Holiday, whose singing success was blighted by both heroin addiction and persecution from Anslinger and his agents; and finally Jazz Age mobster Arnold Rothstein, who despite being as repulsed by addicts as Anslinger, was head of a New York gang that controlled the entire trade in heroin and cocaine on the eastern seaboard of the United States.

From there, Hari leaves libraries and archive rooms and heads out to meet key players on both sides of today’s war. Chino, a former crack dealer in Brooklyn, tells a grimy but absorbing story of survival on the streets. Leigh, a former policewoman in Baltimore, explains how her idealism was dimmed on learning that the arrest of a drug kingpin only unleashed turf wars and consequently increased homicides. “She wanted to bust the drug gangs,” Hari notes, “but in fact she was empowering them.”

The grisliest section of the book sees Hari marching with a chain gang of meth-addict prisoners in the Arizona desert, then going over the border to Ciudad Juárez, “the most dangerous city in the world”, to learn about the housewife who walked the length of Mexico to demand justice for her murdered daughter. He saves the worst for last: a guts-and-all prison interview with the only gang member who got out alive and kept talking, albeit behind bars. Throughout, Hari excoriates the American government for its penal system and despairs at the Mexican authorities’ thraldom to the cartels. Plato o plomo rules: silver or lead – take a bribe or a bullet. “Those searching for the disappeared disappear; those seeking justice for the murdered are murdered, until the silence swallows everything.”

The more Hari uncovers, the more sceptical he becomes of government policies to punish addicts and UN pledges to build a drug-free world. Some 90 per cent of people who use a drug, he informs us, are not actually harmed by it. Drugs are bad, he concedes, “it’s just that drug prohibition is even worse”. Thus on the last leg of his travels he visits places that have benefited from a drug revolution. The former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss tells how she introduced drug reform (the interview is conducted in her Geneva apartment across the street from one of the city’s heroin-­prescribing clinics). The incumbent president of Uruguay explains why he legalised the sale of marijuana. In Portugal, a country that decriminalised all drugs in 2001, the chief of the Lisbon Drugs Squad reveals that 90 per cent of the money spent on drug policy goes on treatment and prevention, with 10 per cent going to policing and punishment – the ratio in the United States being the exact opposite.

These accounts encourage Hari. Sifting further input and analysis from doctors, scientists and therapists, and chalking up his own list of pros and cons, he concludes that legalisation is the way forward. Not only does it reduce risk for users, but it also bankrupts the cartels. What’s more, eradicating a chemical doesn’t eradicate the problem; instead we must tackle the social factors that make people turn to drugs. As Hari says: “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.”

Hari is fond of these neat turns of phrase. He is an immensely affable narrator, eschewing jargon ("fancy names") and maintaining a tone of easy familiarity even when hitting the reader with a barrage of statistics. Level-headed objectivity prevails – mercifully we are a far cry from his splenetic and dubiously researched 2009 article The Dark Side of Dubai. Most of his interviewees are referred to on first-name terms, and Billie Holiday is always "Billie". But that familiarity often takes the form of cloying over-earnestness: after citing an example of a car crash we get: "These addicts – they have been in car crashes of the soul." There are also flashes of self-aggrandisement (Hari constantly reminds us that he is on a "journey", one that takes him "across the front lines of the war on drugs") and moments of remarkable naivety – such as his revelatory discovery that criminalised products don't disappear but instead are controlled and sold by criminal elements.

When Hari writes: “As I dug deeper”, or “I tracked down everyone”, we find ourselves up against the book’s real problem. Is Hari, with his rock-bottom credibility, to be trusted? Given that he devotes his last 70 pages to detailed notes with sources and a lengthy bibliography, it seems a safe bet to say we can. (There is even a link to audio recordings of the quotes that appear within the book, along with the invitation to email Hari with any errors found.)

With its facts laid bare, Chasing the Scream can be rightfully appreciated as a compelling account of a brutal, century-long struggle, one that covers all facets and both sides, while never forgetting the innocents caught in the crossfire. Should the book fail, it will not be because of its quality, rather that its author is still considered damaged goods. Some will wonder if Hari's reputation can ever be salvaged. However, with a book that, fittingly, tracks the route towards reform and rehabilitation, Hari has certainly given it his best shot.

Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.

The book is available from Amazon