Good stories often conflict with good science. And it’s hard to imagine a more stark illustration of this clash than the one presented by Johan Hari’s compulsively readable new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.
The book opens with the juicy tale of Harry Anslinger, America’s first “drug czar,” who headed federal narcotics enforcement from 1930 to 1962 and helped make us the world’s drug cop. Focusing mainly on his irrational pursuit of jazz great Billie Holiday, it shows how the crusading narc epitomizes all that is wrong with the drug war.
With deep historical research, Hari deftly connects the dots, showing how all of the problems with the drug war were present in its father and at its birth. Just like our biased enforcement strategies today, Anslinger was racist. With no compunction, he claimed that the reason that marijuana needed to be banned was its effects on the “degenerate races.” Specifically, he argued, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”