Interview: Johann Hari on f**king up, and the war on drugs

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PinkNews reporter Nick Duffy talks to Johann Hari, about the scandal that ended his career as a columnist, and his radical new book about the drug war.

For a time, Johann Hari was one of the most successful gay men in British journalism. A star columnist for the Independent, he picked up the Orwell Prize in 2008, and racked up a number of other awards.

And then the fall. In 2011, it emerged that the columnist had been engaged in large-scale plagiarism, lifting material from other journalists on dozens of occasions, and using Wikipedia to anonymously attack other columnists.

The reaction was swift. Within weeks he had apologised, been suspended by the Independent, returned his Orwell award, and left the UK to attend journalism school in the US.

Meeting him for the first time four years later, I almost expect him to bitter about events – but it’s clear he is aware he will likely never be done apologising.

“I made some terrible mistakes and errors of judgement”, he says, “that I really strongly regret, and I feel ashamed of.

“When you fuck up, you should pay a big price, and it’s totally right that I should and did pay a big price for fucking up.

“I wouldn’t want to live in a culture where people could make that kind of fuck up and not pay a big price.”

His re-appearance after time outside the public eye is not a bid to revive a career as a columnist – “I’d grown sick of my own voice anyway”, he jokes – but to promote his new book, Chasing the Scream, which delves into the heart of the war on drugs.

Though the book does not reference the scandal, it is decidedly shaped by it. Audio recordings of every live interview are available on his website, and it is clear that every line has been checked and double-checked.

He said: “I was aware that there would be a higher level of scepticism. I thought the best way to deal with that would be to write the most transparent possible book. You can hear everything being said directly to me.”

It is not the only reason the book feels personal. He is candid about his own abuse of prescription Narcolepsy medication, and also the struggles of those around him.

He said: “I had a quite personal reason to want to understand the war on drugs. I had someone with quite a serious drug addiction in my family, and I had an on-off relationship with a guy who had a serious drug problem.

“I realised that there were loads of really basic questions about this whole area I didn’t know the answers to.

“I wanted to know why were drugs banned 100 years ago, why do we continue banning them, what really causes drug use and drug addiction, and what are the alternatives?

“I ended up going on this 30,000 mile journey across three years.

“I met a really amazing range of people, from a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn to a hitman for the worst Mexican drug cartel, to a doctor who spends his time feeding hallucinogens to mongooses to see what would happen, to the only country that’s decriminalised all drugs from cannabis to crack.

“I was a newspaper columnist for a long time, and I kind of lost my taste for arguing and for judgement, and I was much more interesting in sitting with people and really just understanding what their lives were like.”

Though taking a backseat, Hari structures the emotional narrative to argue for a radical shift in drugs policy that is clearly incredibly important to him.

He said: “Almost everything we think we know about this subject is wrong.

“We believe there are chemical hooks in the drug, that if we expose them for long enough, your body will physically need.

“The first thing that really pricked my awareness that there might be someone wrong with that was told to me by Gabor Maté, a doctor in Vancouver.

“If you get hit by a car, you’ll be taken to hospital and be given Diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin – it’s actually much better heroin than you’d score on the streets, because it’s medically pure heroin.

“You’d be given that Diamorphine for quite a long time, in almost every hospital across Britain and all over the world.

“If what we believe about addiction is right, those people should leave hospital as addicts, but that virtually never happens.

“I did more digging… one of the origins of that theory about addiction was rat experiments earlier in the 20th century.

“You get a rat, put it in a cage, and it’s on its own, and it’s got two water bottles. One is water, and one is water laced with either heroin or cocaine.

“If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water, almost always kill itself.

“In the 70s, Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology in British Columbia, said ‘well hang on a minute, we’re putting the rat in an empty cage.’

“So he built heaven for rats, Rat Park, which has everything a rat could ever want. Food, coloured balls, loads of friends, loads of sex, and both the water bottles.

“In Rat Park, the don’t like the drugged water very much. They don’t use very much, they never overdose, and they never use in a way that appears to be compulsive.

“It’s not your brain, it’s the cage you live in.”

“90% of all drug use is non-problematic, according to the UN office for Drug Control, which means the vast majority of punishment is directed to people who are doing no harm to themselves or anyone else.”

He also says a more radical view of drug addiction helps to explain its prevalence the gay community.

He says: “For every traumatic thing that happens to a child, they are two to four times more likely to be an injecting drug user.

“The best explanation I got of that from Gabor Maté is when you’re a kid, you internalise the way your parents treat you.

“If when you’re upset, your parents are loving, you will in time react to your own upset by being loving and reassuring.

“If when you’re upset, your parents are hostile, angry, violent, you will not be able to soothe yourself. You will react with hostility and violence to your own pain.

“People in that situation are much more likely to need to soothe themselves externally with something like Heroin, or to be out of it with something like Crack.

“There’s a clear parallel. Gay people are disproportionately likely to have traumatic childhoods, disproportionately likely to be rejected by their parents.”

It’s not just the gay community who are linked to the drug war. One of the most memorable characters in the book is Chino – a drug dealer from Brooklyn, who transitioned from female to male – but managed to find acceptance, even at the heart of a New York gang.

Hari says: “Chino was conceived in 1980 when his mother Deborah, who was a crack addict, was raped by his father Victor, who was an NYPD officer. Chino is a child of the drug war in the purest sense.

“Deborah died when Chino was quite young in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic.

“When Chino was 13, he became a crack dealer, and spent his teens rising through the gangs and going in and out of prison.

“One of the things that really surprised me about Chino was that he was a transsexual, and started living as a man from a very early age.

“I think it’s a hyper-masculine culture, and I feel like because Chino was making a transition from being a woman to a man, meant that he was accepted.

“If it had been the other way, I don’t think a [trans woman] in Brooklyn would have the same degree of acceptance.”

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