100 years of the “War on Drugs” (By Irwing Lazo)

100 years of the “War on Drugs” (By Irwing Lazo)

100 years of the “War on Drugs”:

By Irwing Lazo


"If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness".

(Monseigneur Bienvenu in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo)

One of Johann Hari’s fist childhood memories is one in which he futilly tries to wake up a family member from a drug overdose. Hari went on to graduate from Cambridge University in England and practice journalism. After becoming an award-winning journalist, Hari embarked on a thirty thousand mile trip, across nine countries, over the course of three years, doing research on the War on Drugs. The result was a New York Times bestselling book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

The title of the book is assumed to be a spin-off of the cantonese slang “Chasing the Dragon,” which refers to the inhaling of vapor emanating from heating opium. Hari begins the book with the first soldier of the War on Drugs, Harry Anslinger. As a child, Anslinger heard screams at night while he tried to sleep. One night his father woke him up. Armed with a note for the pharmacist, young Anslinger was sent to get his mother’s opioid prescription. That night, he discovered his mother was an addict. Hari writes:

"When he grew into a man, this boy [Anslinger] was going to draw together some of the deepest fears in American culture – of racial minorities, of intoxication, of losing control – and channel them into a global war to prevent those screams. It would cause many screams in turn. They can be heard in almost every city on earth tonight. This is how Harry Anslinger entered the drug war."

In 1930, Anslinger became the First Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which later became the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). As First Commissioner, Anslinger played a crucial role in the eventual prohibition of marijuana. One of his effective tactics was to play on racists views held by many at the time. Anslinger was quoted saying, “there are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, most are negroes, hispanics, filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, Jazz, and Swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with negroes, entertainers, and any others”. Thus, it comes as no surprise when today Whites and African Americans use marijuana at a similar rate, yet African Americans are six-times more likely to get arrested for marijuana use. While Anslinger is dead, his spirit lives on in the form of institutional racism, or as the scholar Michelle Alexander explains, racism without racists.

The above chart shows arrests data from the FBI and the latest census. It is worth noting that liberal-leaning urban centers like Cook County, and New York, have the largest disparities.

In what I believe is the most eye-opening section of the book, Hari’s thesis argues that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection” . To add teeth to his argument, Hari cites the “rat park” experiment conducted by psychologist Bruce Alexander, which explains that during the 1970s, the prominent theory of addiction came from a series of experiments known as the Skinner Box. These experiments consisted of a rat placed inside a cage with two bottles to drink from. One bottle contained plain water, the other contained sugar-water laced with morphine. Isolated in the cage, the rat tried both waters and ended up addicted to the morphine water. Alexander went further to explain that the drug itself is not the sole problem, but rather the environment. He created a social “rat park” where play structures, food, and mating was plentiful, and the two water options were also available. Most rats tried both waters, but none became dependent on the morphine water. In fact, consumption of the drugged water by isolated rats was nineteen times higher than those in the social rat park. Alexander and his students concluded:

"It soon became absolutely clear to us that the earlier Skinner box experiments did not prove that morphine was irresistible to rats. Rather, most of the consumption of rats isolated in a Skinner box was likely to be a response to isolation itself. So, we published the results of our experiments in psychopharmacology journals".

The “rat park” experiment. Illustrations by Stuart McMillen.

In 1971, Congressman Robert Steele from Connecticut and Morgan Murphy from Illinois visited American troops in Vietnam. To their astonishment, they discovered that 15% of the troops were addicted to heroin and that 40% had tried the drug. Researchers led by Dr. Lee Robinson later found, however, that when troops came home only 5% of them continued to be addicted. The remaining 95% ended their addiction practically overnight. Thousands of miles away from home, enduring excruciating terrain in a war that killed 47,000 Americans and 1 million civilians, one can see how the numbing effects of heroin could be used to cope with such a dark time. While there is not a single explanation for the decrease in addiction to heroin once servicemembers came home, it is clear to see that once home, they found themselves in a completely different environment. War is a cage of isolation and hopelessness, but once back in their social rat park, war was no longer begging them to “chase the dragon”.


Nonetheless, in 2016, the National Institute of Drug Abuse recorded 64,000 deaths from drug overdoses in the United States, surpassing the death toll of American service members killed in the Vietnam War. This begs the question, “what cage is causing this addiction?” Although not isolated in a warzone, a large swath of the American public lives with stagnant wages, housing crises, poverty. One can argue that this builds a cage of isolation and hopelessness, and in the words of former addict and artist Russell Brand, some would, “rather anesthetize the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief”.


It has been 100 years since the War on Drugs began, during which militarism and draconian laws targeting illicit drug trade and consumption have failed spectacularly. Rather than eradicating drugs and reducing addiction, the United States has become the number one destination for drug trade, also leading the world in the number of incarcerations for drug-related charges, disproportionately minorities. As the popularity of books like Chasing the Scream indicates, decent people are looking for alternative narratives that offer an iota of hope. Hope for those whom the system has deemed dispensable deadweight by the War on Drugs.

Critics of Johann Hari say that his thesis is too simplistic. I agree. After all these years of complex laws and complex military tactics/devices sweeping through poor neighborhoods, perhaps a simple solution like investing in a social rat park could mark an the end to this war. As California becomes the 8th State to tax and regulate marijuana with funds to be used to support social services to help people out of the hypothetical rate cage, such as job placement, mental health treatment, substance use disorder treatment, the federal government has two options: enforce a bankrupt policy or acquiesce.




References and Further Readings



Hari, Johann. "Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong." TED: Ideas worth spreading. https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong.


Lind, Dara. "Cops do 20,000 no-knock raids a year. Civilians often pay the price when they go wrong." Vox. October 29, 2014. https://www.vox.com/2014/10/29/7083371/swat-no-knock-raids-police-killed-civilians-dangerous-work-drugs.

McDonald, David. "The Racist Roots of Marijuana Prohibition | David McDonald." FEE. April 11, 2017. Accessed January 04, 2018. https://fee.org/articles/the-racist-roots-of-marijuana-prohibition/#0.

Matthews, Dylan. "The black/white marijuana arrest gap, in nine charts." The Washington Post. June 04, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/06/04/the-blackwhite-marijuana-arrest-gap-in-nine-charts/?utm_term=.403fbca060fa.