Book Review: Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari presents a 360-view of how addiction works. It gives a chronological account of the War on Drugs, hence, it’s a largely convincing book.

Johann Hari started his journey in the first place as he had a few questions like:

  • What causes addiction?
  • Is there any alternative to system that we have been using that doesn’t seem to work?

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs is one of the best examples where empirical research gives factual information. While working on this project, Johann Hari discovered three things:

  1. drugs are not what we think they are,
  2. addiction is not what we think it is and
  3. war on drugs has a very different modules to what we see on TV

Rat Park

Addiction is not about chemical hooks, as was previously thought, rather addiction is about adaption to your environment. Hari gave an impelling example of “rat park” that was conducted by one of his interviewees Bruce K. Alexander, a psychologist from Vancouver, Canada.

Rat Park was a series of studies into drug addiction conducted in the late 1970s. Initially, a rat was placed in an empty cage that had only two bottles – one with regular drinking water, while other with cocaine laced water.  The rat was under no compulsion to consume either of the water. However, as time progressed, it preferred cocaine laced water over regular water and hence, slowly and steadily, progressed itself to deterioration.

Bruce Alexander took the experiment to the next level. He created a “holistic” environment to a caged rat. He called it the “rat park”. He placed cheese, lots of tunnels, colored balls and friends/companions in the cage for rat to have a good time. He also added two similar bottles, one with regular water and other laced with cocaine or heroin. And the result was different. The rat never really consumed the laced water, in fact, it didn’t like the drug water.

Opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection

None of the rats used in the “rat park” experiment got addicted to the laced water neither did they overdose it.

With this experiment Hari concluded that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection.

Human beings have an innate need to connect and bond. And when there is a healthy relationship in one’s life with family and friends and of course with a satisfying job, one does not feel the desire to venture into the realm of drugs. So, it could be that drug addiction is a mental health issue.

Addiction is not about chemical hooks

Another equally striking example that he gave is of US soldiers during Vietnam war. During the war nearly 20% of the military were consuming heroin. And it was expected that once the war gets over, streets in the US would be occupied by junkies. This, however, never happened.

As per the data from the archives of general studies, none of them went to rehab and neither went into withdrawal. 95% of them just stopped consuming the drug back home.

Thus, addiction is not about chemical hooks, addiction is more about what one has in her/his cage. It is more about adaption to one’s environment.

So, is there a way out to curb addiction?

Hari has a solution for this global problem. Instead of stigmatizing the addicts, he says, we need to build up a system where they get seeped into the society not as people coming from rehab. Rather they need to feel a connection like any other regular person.

They need to have a bonding where they see themselves contributing towards society in a constructive manner. As the Portugal administration did. The government helped bringing out massive programs of job creation for addicts and micro-loans for addicts to start small scale businesses.

Portugal administration and addiction

The goal was every addict to have a job, which they look forward to every morning. A sense of purpose in doing everyday stuff be it job or small businesses.

They re-discovered bonds and relationships with society. After 15 years of research, Hari concluded that in Portugal, as per British journal of criminology, injecting drug uses came down to 50%, overdoses went massively down, HIV ratio too drastically showed downward trend. In fact, addiction in every study went significantly down.

In the same study, in Portugal, no one wants to go back to the old system that leads to addiction.


Hari’s quest to find out all he could about drugs and what he thinks could be a probable solution seems an effective treatment for drug addiction. 

After reading about successful stories of countries like Switzerland and Portugal, where government took charge of dealing with addicts gives a ray of hope for people in third world countries, where drug peddling has seeped so much into the society that it seems taking the weeds out would require a work of an entire generation.

I feel everyone must read this book. The world would be a better place if we had a greater understanding of this subject.

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