• "Everything we think we know on this subject is wrong" (The Feed)
Johann Hari tells Marc Fennell why we've lost the war on drugs, and what we can do to clean up the damage.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015 - 19:30
Most people don't make a comeback with drug addiction. But Johann Hari is an exception to the rule. He was an award winning young journalist - and then 2011 it all came crashing down. He was outed as plagiarising his interview quotes from old articles. He quit. Handed back the prizes. And went away to travel the world, meeting drug dealers, mob hitmen and doctors, all to explore how our war on drugs is failing. Badly.

Your personal experience with drugs - there's a story of you not being able to rouse a family member. Tell me a little bit about where your relationship with drugs begins.

One of my earliest memories is trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. I was too young then to understand why, but as I got older I realised we had addiction in my family. When I started work on this book four years ago, I thought I knew loads about this subject; I lived with it in my family and I'd written a lot about it as a journalist. But I suddenly realised there were loads of really basic questions I didn't know the answer to: why did we go to war against drug addicts and drug users 100 years ago? Why do we carry on when it's so obviously failing? Is there anything we could do that would really bring addicts back to us? What really causes drug use and drug addiction?

I couldn't find the answers in what I was reading so I went on this big journey and sat with loads of different people over 30,000 miles, from a transgender crack dealer in Brooklyn, to a hitman for the deadliest Mexican cartel, to the only country that's ever decriminalised all drugs.

The main thing I realised is almost everything we think we know on this subject is wrong. Drugs are not what we think they are. Addiction is not what we think it is. The war on drugs is not what we think it is. And the alternatives to the war on drugs aren't what we think they are either.

Let's start with what we don't know. Tell me what it is that most people get wrong in their understanding of addiction.

If you'd said to me four years ago, what causes heroin addiction, I would have looked at you like you were a bit simple-minded and said, well, the clue's in title right? Heroin addiction is obviously caused by heroin.’ We think if the next 20 people to walk past all took heroin for 20 days, on day 21 they'd all be heroin addicts, because there are chemical hooks in the heroin that their bodies would start to physically need or desperately crave.

"If your grandmother ever had a hip replacement she took a lot of heroin."

The first thing that alerted me to the fact there's something not right with that story, which was explained to me by lots of doctors, is if you stepped out of this interview now and, god forbid, got hit by a truck and you broke your hip, you'd be taken to hospital and you'd be given loads of diamorphine. Diamorphine is just the medical name for heroin, and much stronger heroin than you'd ever buy from a drug dealer because what they sell you is contaminated, but doctors give you the pure stuff. If your grandmother ever had a hip replacement she took a lot of heroin.

Now if what we think about addiction is right, what should happen to those people? A lot of them should become addicts. They're exposed to all the same chemical hooks as any addict. This has been studied really carefully; it almost never happens.

The Blank Hand: Chasing The Scream
Read the first chapter of Johann Hari's New York Times bestseller, Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

When I learned that it was so weird, so contrary to everything we'd been told, I didn't understand it untl I want to Vancouver and met this extraordinary professor of psychology, Bruce Alexander, who I think should have transformed how we think about addiction. He explained to me the idea we've all got in our heads comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century.

They're really simple experiments; your viewers can do them at home if they're feeling a bit sadistic. [ED: please don't]. You put a rat in a cage and you give it two water bottles. One is just water, and the other 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 quite quickly. So there you go, right? That's a story about addiction.

But in the 70s Professor Alexander came along and said, 'hang on a minute, we're putting these rats in an empty cage; they've got nothing to do except use these drugs, let's see what would happen if we changed this’. So he built a cage that he called Rat Park which is basically heaven for rats. Anything a rat could possibly want in life is there in Rat Park. They've got loads of friends, they can have loads of sex, they've got loads of cheese, they've got loads of coloured balls - and they've got both the water bottles.

But this is the fascinating thing; in Rat Park, they don't like the drugged water. They almost never use it. None of them ever use it compulsively. None of them ever overdose.

"The main thing that I take from that is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection."

Some people say we shouldn't even call it addiction, we should call it bonding. Human beings have an innate need to bond and connect, and when we're happy and healthy we bond and connect with each other. If you can't do that because you're isolated, or traumatised, or beaten down by life, you will bond and connect with something that gives you some sense of relief, and you'll keep coming back to it. That might be gambling, it might be pornography, it might be cannabis, it might be ice, it might be alcohol. But you'll bond with something because that's our nature.

When you know that pain and isolation are the biggest causes of addiction, suddenly you realise why the war on drugs approach is failing so badly. Inflicting more pain and more isolation doesn't turn the addict around. It makes them worse.

What about recreational or social drug use? What you're describing is like a straight line to down and out drug use, whereas there's a lot of drug use before that, where people do it with friends, with people. Where does that sit?

Crucially important: the UN Office of Drug Control are the main drug controllers in the world. Their slogan is 'a drug free world - we can do it" which tells you where they are coming from.

Even they admitted a few years ago that 90 per cent of all banned drug use is non-problematic. It doesn't make you addicted; it doesn’t screw up your health

Let's start with ice; there's a current epidemic in Australia of methylamphetamine addiction. 85 per cent of people who use ice don't become addicted. This is really important to understand. We know the vast majority of people who try any drug, we know this with alcohol - go to any bar here in Sydney on any night, and you know there's be some people who are alcoholics who need our love and compassion, but the vast majority of people won't be. They'll just be having a good time with their drug.

Educated, wealthy, and using drugs: Is it time to change Australia's drug laws?
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 40 per cent of Aussies have tried illegal drugs. Yet, you'd be hard pressed to find a politican, professional or any high profile person who would admit to it.

That's actually the norm with all drugs. So you've got to ask what's going on with that 10 to 15 per cent who do develop a problem. It's not the chemical hooks, it's the underlying pain and isolation in their lives. That's what you need to turn around. And in case this sounds abstract: there are countries that have built policies based on these insights.

In the 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. 1 per cent of the population was addicted to hard drugs, much worse than what's going on here in Australia. So every year they waged the drug war more. They arrested and imprisoned more people. And every year the problem got worse.

One day the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition got together and said, look, we can't go on like this. What are we going to do? So did something no one had done since the start of the war on drugs: they decided to go back to the evidence. They sat with a panel of scientists and doctors and they said, 'you guys go away and look at all the evidence, figure out what would genuinely solve this problem and we've agreed in advance that we'll do whatever you recommend'. They took it out of politics.

"The goal was to say to every addict in Portugal, we love you, we value you, we want you back."

The panel went came back and said; decriminalise all drugs, from cannabis to ice. But - and this is the crucial next step - take all the money currently spent on making addicts lives worse, and spend it instead on turning their lives around.

They do a bit of residential rehab, they do a bit of psychological support, there's some value in that, but the biggest thing they do is the opposite of what we [Britain and Australia] do. We take addicts, we give them criminal records, and we make it really hard for them to get jobs. What they did in Portugal is they set up a massive program of job creation for addicts. Say you used to be a mechanic. They'll go to a garage and they say, if you employ this guy for a year, we'll pay half his wages. They set up a huge program of microloans for addicts, so they could set up small businesses. The goal was to say to every addict in Portugal, we love you, we value you, we want you back, and we want you as part of the society. We want you to have something to get out of bed for in the morning.

In a couple of months it will be fifteen years since this experiment began and the results are in. Injecting drug use is down by 50 per cent. Overdose deaths are massively down, HIV transmission among addicts is massively down, street crime is massively down.

It's really important for people to understand that models based on shaming, stigmatising and punishing addicts don't just fail; they make addicts worse. Models based on loving addicts, and compassion and helping them to rebuild their lives genuinely do work. It's really disconcerting to come here and see that while almost the whole world is moving in the direction of compassion, your government is responding to the real problems with ice with policies that will in fact make that problem worse.

How so? How will the policies make it worse?

Well if you're shaming and stigmatising addicts, and creating hysteria and making ridiculous false claims about those users, they'll get worse, because it's not a model based on compassion.

The other great tragedy, and actually I think it's the biggest moral challenge about drug policy, is when you ban drugs, they don't disappear. They're transferred from doctors and pharmacists to armed criminal gangs. I learned a lot about those armed criminal gangs work from the transgendered crack dealer who is one of the central figures in Chasing The Scream, and from a hitman for the deadliest Mexican drug cartel who I got to know, who's also a big figure.

"Does the head of Smirnoff go and shoot the head of Heineken in the face?" 

The best way to explain how that violence plays out across Australia is that after this interview, say I depressed you too much and you decide you want to go and steal a bottle of vodka… If the guys in your local liquor store catch us trying to steal it, they'll call the police. And the police will come and take you away. So that liquor store doesn't need to be violent, it doesn't need to be intimidating; they've got the power of the law behind them to uphold their property rights.

If however you got depressed and you decided you wanted to steal some cannabis, or some cocaine, and the guy in this neighbourhood selling those drugs caught you, obviously he can't ring the police. The police would take him away. He has to be violent. He has to be intimidating. He has to fight you. He has to establish his place in this neighbourhood against rival drug dealers by fighting them, by establishing a reputation for being so terrifying that nobody would be so stupid as to take him on twice.

Ice Towns
The rise of crystal methamphetamine, commonly known as ice, is devastating regional Victoria. Ice is highly addictive, it's relatively cheap and a lot of it is produced right here in Australia.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, calculated there are 10,000 additional murders every year in the US as a direct result of that dynamic. The war on drugs creates a war for drugs.

If you want to understand what happens when you move to a legal regulated model, ask yourself, where are the violent alcohol dealers in Chicago today? Does the head of Smirnoff go and shoot the head of Heineken in the face? No. Under alcohol prohibition that's exactly what happened. It doesn't happen now. Alcohol hasn't changed. What's changed is the system of legal regulation. You can end all those murders through a system of legal regulation.

It's happening in lots of different places; Colorado has legalised cannabis, Switzerland has legalised heroin. These models have worked incredibly well. Since people saw them in practice in those countries, huge majorities have voted to keep them in place.

The one thing you can say for the model that's being promoted here is we have given it a fair shot. The US has given it 100 years, a trillion dollars, untold number of people's lives lost, and at the end of all that, they can't even keep drugs out of their prisons, which have a walled perimeter they pay someone to walk around the whole time. At some point we've got to come back to reality. we've got to see that the addicts people Who are being murdered in Australia deserve a policy that will actually rescue them rather than one that will drive them into even deeper misery and despair.

How frustrating is it to you that when you lay out these arguments that the easiest criticism anyone can make of you is 'disgraced former journalist with The Independent'. How frustrating is it that this detailed research that you've done can be batted away?

I don't think that's happened. I've put up all the interviews; the audio from all of them is there. I think when a book is endorsed by people as varied as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist like Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, probably the most distinguished intellectual alive, Naomi Klein, lots of police chiefs... I think it's harder to dismiss it in that way.

Was that a plan? When you were talking about how you were going to market and release it, did you have to sit down and think, how am I going to cut those sorts of opinions off?

No, I just tried to write the best book I could, and obviously once it was written I wanted the best possible people, if they liked it, to get behind it. I'm pleased it's the only book that's ever been endorsed by both Noam Chomsky and Elton John. I tried to persuade them to sing a duet in honour of it, but Noam wasn't up for it.

That is disappointing, and a true failure on your part.

There's a beautiful story where you talk about drug addicts in Vancouver building their own patrol system. I'd love you to tell that story for us.

I'm so glad you asked that! It's one of the things that most moved me. In the 2000, in a very notorious part of Vancouver called the Downtown Eastside, which was full of addicts, there was a homeless street addict called Bud Oswald, and he was watching his friends die all around him. It was a really intense drug war, and the police were busting people the whole time, and to avoid the police people would shoot up behind dumpsters and in corners. Obviously, if you start to OD when you're hiding, no one sees you, your body gets found a few days later.

Bud thought, I can't just watch all my friends die. But he also thought, I'm a homeless junkie, what am I going to do? So he gathered together a load of the addicts, and he said, when we're not using, which is most of the time, even for hard-core addicts, why don't we just organise a patrol and we'll just look in the alleyways, and if we see someone overdosing we'll call an ambulance. People were a bit skeptical, but they thought they’d give it a try. They started to do it and within a couple of months the death toll started to really significantly fall in the Downtown Eastside.

It was great in itself because it meant people were living who would have died, but it also meant the addicts started to think about themselves differently. They started to think, maybe we're not the pieces of crap everyone says we are. Maybe we can do something. They set up a group called VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

There was a very right wing mayor in Vancouver at the time called Phillip Owen, who said that all the addicts should be taken and detained at the local military base and never let out. But VANDU had learned that in Australia, and in Frankfurt in Germany, there had been safe injecting rooms which had significantly lowered the death rates of addicts, and they thought, we've got to do this in Vancouver. But Phillip Owen was very against it. So they decided everywhere Phillip Owen went in public, they were going to follow him, carrying a coffin. The coffin said, 'who will die next?’

This went on for years. They got quite disheartened because nothing changed. But one day Phillip Owen, to his eternal credit, said, ‘who are these people?' He went incognito to the Downtown Eastside and he met loads of addicts. It blew his mind. He had no idea what their lives were like.

He held a press conference with the Chief of Police, the coroner, and a representative of VANDU, and he said, 'I'm never going to speak again about addiction without having the addicts here with me because they know a whole lot better than me. We're going to open the first safe injecting room in North America since the start of the drug war. We're going to have the most compassionate drug policies in North America. Things are going to change around here.'

They opened the safe injecting room, and Phillip Owen’s right wing party was so horrified they deselected him. His political career ended. But the guy they selected was then beaten by a more left-wing candidate who kept the room open.

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When I went to the Downtown Eastside it was ten years since all this had happened. Deaths from overdose were down by 80 per cent, and average life expectancy was up by ten years because of the whole package of compassionate drug policies they introduced. I went to see Phillip Owen, and he told me it was the proudest thing he'd ever done, and he’d sacrifice his entire political career all over again.

Bud, the homeless guy who started the uprising, he died after I got to know him. He was only in his early 60s, but he'd been a homeless addict during the drug war and that takes a toll on you. When he died they had a memorial service and they sealed off the streets of the downtown east side where he'd lived as a homeless person.

Lots of people in that crowd knew that they were alive because of what he'd started that day.

It really made me think, I'm sure there will be people watching this who think the war on drugs is a terrible thing and also think, this is too big, this is a hundred  year war. There are so many entrenched beliefs that surround it; what are we going to do?

I'd just say to them: you are so much more powerful than you know. It's hard to think of a more powerless person in our culture than a homeless street addict. But he didn't sit there waiting for a leader. He didn't sit there feeling sorry for himself. He started where he stood. And because of what he started the Canadian Supreme Court has now ruled that addicts have an inalienable right to life, and that includes a safe place to use their drugs, and that will never be taken away now.

Australians are compassionate and decent people. A movement explaining the terrible harms we get from this war to no benefit would get huge traction in this country. People should feel really empowered. You can save an enormous number of people's lives, and the sooner we start, the more lives we'll save.

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