Johann Hari: on the U.S. drug war fought to the last Mexican

In 2011, British journalist Johann Hari was at the top of the journalistic pile. Sharp, brave and energetic, he was the Independent’s best-known columnist and named by the Daily Telegraph as one of the most influential left-wingers in Britain. Yet a series of plagiarism allegations turned his life upside down. He returned his prestigious 2008 George Orwell Prize and stepped away from the Independent. 

Now Hari’s back from the wilderness with an explosive new book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” complete with sixty pages of footnotes that leave little doubt about his research methods.

Garnering praise from the likes of Elton John and Noam Chomsky, the book examines the 100-year history of drug prohibition. As part of the sweeping work, Hari visits Juarez, one of the many Mexican cities that drug policies have turned into a war zone. He interviews a hitman for the Zetas, a man who dresses as an angel to protest at murder scenes and relatives of activist Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, who was shot dead while demonstrating against her daughter’s murder.

Mexican Labyrinth: You spoke to Mexicans who have been affected by the war on drugs in the most extreme ways. What most shocked you on your trip?

Johann Hari: The first thing that shocked me is that this is not something that Mexico has in any way chosen. If you look at the story of when the drug war begins, Mexico had a very good drug policy early in the twentieth century. The drug policy was run by a doctor, Leopardo Salazar Viniegra, who said that marijuana isn’t really the problem and we shouldn’t criminalize it and addicts should be treated with compassion. A pretty good policy. It would actually be pretty advanced today.916iyJC0qAL._SL1500_

The reason why that policy changed was not because of internal pressure from within Mexico. The reason why that policy changed is the American government ordered the Mexicans to fire this guy and to change the policy. When Mexico refused, Harry Anslinger, the founder of the modern war on drugs and the most influential head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the United States, ordered the supply of legal opiates to Mexico which were used for pain relief in hospitals to be cut off. So basically, Mexicans started to die in agony in hospitals because they didn’t have basic pain relief. At that point the Mexican government gave in. You see this pattern of intimidation running all the way through the imposition of the war on drugs in Mexico.

ML: Although Mexico is one of the countries worst affected by the war on drugs, surveys show that most Mexicans are anti-drug reform.  How would you respond to that?

JH: The vast majority of the drug trade passing through Mexico is not for internal domestic consumption, it’s going to the United States. Internal legalization within Mexico has value, but most of the problems you’re facing are not going to be solved by legalization within Mexico.

The thing that will deal with most of the problems is a move towards regulated use in Europe and the United States, which I think has actually begun.

In terms of why people are against it in Mexico, it’s the same reason people are against it almost everywhere in the world. That is, they are totally understandably afraid of the alternatives and people like me need to do a much better job of explaining to people what the alternatives mean in practice. If legalization meant a free-for-all, where anyone could use any drugs anywhere and get them anytime, I would be against legalization. That’s not actually what legalization means, and it’s very important to explain to people, this is not an abstract conversation, we’re not talking about hypothetical scenarios. This has been tried.

ML: What would legalization look like in practice?

JH: Let’s look at two examples. The legalization of marijuana and the legalization of heroin. It’s important to understand that legalization means different things for different drugs. I am in Britain at the moment. Alcohol and sleeping pills are legal in Britain but there are different ways to access them. So if I want to buy alcohol, I have to go to a licenced shop, with licencing hours, I have to be over 18, there are all sorts of restrictions. Quite rightly, I can’t drive, I can’t go through certain parts of the city center drinking openly.


Journalist and author Johann Hari

If I want to get sleeping pills, there’s a different kind of regulation. I have to go to the doctor.  I have to have a good reason. The doctor will monitor me. The doctor might stop me after a while. So both of those things are legal but they’re legal in different ways. It’s very important to understand what we’re proposing with ending the drug war will work in a similar way. Different drugs will be regulated differently.

What we have at the moment is a system of total anarchy. Unknown criminals sell unknown chemicals to unknown users, all in the dark. Legalisation is a way of ending that anarchy and expanding the regulation.

ML: How would you respond to those who say that U.S. legalization would lead the drug cartels to transfer to other forms of crime, like kidnapping and extortion?

JH: I think that’s wrong. With alcohol prohibition, where are the violent alcohol dealers today? The drinks aisle at Wal-mart doesn’t go and blow up the local liquor store. That’s not because anything has changed about alcohol, it’s because the legal framework has changed.

We don’t have to talk in hypotheticals. Professor Jeffrey Miron at Harvard University has done the most detailed study of the murder rate in the United States. The murder rate massively spikes in the 1920’s during alcohol prohibition and as soon as alcohol prohibition ended it massively falls and never rises again until the 1970’s when you suddenly have the intensification of drug prohibition. So we know that murder rates fall.

The best way to explain it is if you and I go into the local liquor store and we try to steal the beer or the vodka, they’ll ring the police and that’s that. We’ll be taken away. They don’t need to be violent or intimidating. If however we go up to the local weed dealer or coke dealer and try to steal their goods they can’t call the police, so they have to be violent and intimidating. Obviously if you’re a dealer, you don’t want to be having a fight every day, that’s an inefficient way of doing business. You want to establish a reputation for being so terrifying that no one will dare cross you.

Sociologist Philippe Bourgois calls this “a culture of terror.” You see that in a housing project in New York or London but you see it on steroids in northern Mexico.

The cartels have to establish themselves as so terrifying that no one will dare take them on. In fact they have become so powerful that they can hijack the state, which is what has effectively happened in northern Mexico.

ML: What advice would you give the Mexican government in the current phase of the drug war?

JH: If you’re the president and you’re looking at northern Mexico, Effectively, you’re out-gunned, you’re outspent. It’s like saying what could the Mayor of Chicago do in 1925 to deal with the alcohol related gangs? Well, argue for the end of prohibition is pretty much the only thing …

What I would recommend is that President Peña Nieto joins Uruguay and the government of Portugal and the government of Switzerland and the other countries that are moving beyond the drug war and make this the single biggest diplomatic issue that Mexico takes to the world.

David Simon, the great writer, said the United States is prepared to fight the drug war to the last Mexican. I think that’s true. I would say that President Peña Nieto, and every Mexican should be saying, “we won’t be sacrificed for a war that has never worked, can never work and will never work, we insist on a return to sanity.”

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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