Johann Hari did so much more than enlighten me in his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. I met all the players in this war, from the government officials to the cartels and dealers, to those on the global leading edge of decriminalization and legalization. In addition, Hari introduced me to people still battling addiction and those in long-term recovery. This is a full spectrum book about an important issue, and I’m incredibly glad I read it.

Hari begins in the early twentieth century, around the time of alcohol Prohibition, and continues to present day. In each era he tells stories of real people on both sides of the issue. Most of them are people I didn’t know much about, although he does delve into the life of Billie Holiday. I’ll never listen to her music the same way again.

Hari discusses what people imprisoned for drug use experience. Then he introduces an alternative, where people are not only treated for their addiction, but treated like true human beings. The contrast between the two options is both striking and a little depressing. The current methods in the U.S. are so punitive and harsh. Still, I never understood the details of possible alternatives. Now I have a firm grasp on how a few other places address both drug use and sales.

As a journalist, Hari presents facts. As a nonfiction writer on a quest, he also injects his own opinions regularly. His questioning nature drew me into the narrative, and reflected things I wondered as well. Like most of us, Hari has friends and family battling addiction. He just wants answers and perspective on the issue. Still, I felt like his writing was fairly even handed.

I recommend pairing this book with The New Jim Crow or White Rage, among others.

My conclusions

Every stage of this book captivated me. I honestly couldn’t put it down. I recommend Chasing the Scream if this issue concerns you, but nonfiction isn’t typically your thing. The writing style Hari uses is extremely readable. I also think you’ll care about the people he interviews because their perspectives are so meaningful.

In my home county, one of the candidates for District Attorney is talking a lot about this issue. It’s a key part of his platform. I’ve been supporting him on the surface, but now I understand each side in more depth. I didn’t realize everything I’d gain when I picked this book, but am glad it’s so relevant to my current local politics.

My massage office is also around the corner from a methadone clinic. In the 8 years I’ve practiced in this location, the numbers of patients have grown exponentially. In addition, our family has also been touched by addiction. It is a public health crisis, not a criminal one. I will be recommending Chasing the Scream to everyone willing to open their minds and consider both sides of the issue.