For the past few months, I have been watching the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter as it exposes the unpunished killings of African-Americans -- Trayvon and Michael and Eric, and all the other names that never make the news, because there are so many, and it never seems to stop. I had a very personal reason for watching it so closely. For most of my adult life, and for the past three years especially, I have been spending a lot of time with another minority group. All over the world, they are being killed or left to die, with nobody being punished, and nobody being called to account. There have even been government officials who suggest their deaths are a good thing.
There will be some people reading this who shrug when members of this minority die, and say they brought it on themselves. I am talking about addicts, who I spent a lot of time with for my new book, Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. I would like to propose today the hashtag #AddictsLivesMatter, because we need to change how we think about them.
Here's a story I stumbled across that, to me, distills the darkest attitude we have fostered towards addicts in our culture -- the one that has been created by the drug war, and has been in place for a century this year.
In Phoenix, Arizona, I went to a prison called Tent City. It is a slew of tents in the desert behind barbed wire, and I went out in the sweaty Arizona sun with the prison's female chain gang, who are forced to wear t-shirts saying "I Was A Drug Addict" and dig graves. The guards force these women to chant rhymes that state they will be electrocuted if they show any "lip." It's not an idle threat: I met the father of a man who was killed with a taser in this prison, on camera, when he was offering no resistance.
I talked with the women about their lives as they wiped the sweat from their brows. One of them, Karen, was in her early forties and had a quiet, girlish voice as she stuttered her story about being violently abused by men all her life, and how the only thing that had ever made her feel any relief was drugs.
I also spoke with the women who work on prisoners' rights in Arizona, and I asked them one of my stock journalistic questions: What have you seen over the years that shocked you? One of them, Donna Leone Hamm of the excellent organization Middle Ground Prison Reform, started to reel off a long list, and a while into her list she mentioned the time they put a woman in a cage and cooked her, and then carried on. I asked her to stop, and go back a second. What did they do?
When Prisoner Number 109416 woke up in her cell in Perryville State Prison on May 19th 2009 she was suicidal. The prison doctor said she was just trying to get out of her cell. They took 109416 and put her in an uncovered outdoor cage. And they left her there. According to witnesses, she begged for water. She shat herself. She started to scream deliriously. And then she collapsed. By the time the ambulance arrived, her internal organs had been cooked, as if in an oven.
And here's the thing. Nobody was ever criminally punished.
Because she was an addict. Because she didn't matter.
Almost nothing was known about Prisoner Number 109416 except that she was in and out of prison either for having meth, or for prostituting herself to get it, so I set off on a journey across the US to find out who she really was. The story -- which you can find in the book -- tells us a lot about the drug war. Her real name was Marcia Powell and, as I learned from the father of her son, there were moments in her life when she got clean and recovered, only to be busted for old drug charges and to spiral back onto the road that ended in a desert cage.
This story is extreme, but as I learned on my long journey from Mexico to Vietnam, it is only the sharpest tip of the spear that is jabbed at addicts every day, across most of the world. It has been there since the start of the drug war. This war was launched in the 1930s by a man called Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who was driven by an obsessive hatred of addicts. He treasured a poem that said he could only retire when "the last addicts died."
One of the people he took his rage out on was Billie Holiday. He had her stalked by his agents and sent to prison. He had her stripped of her ability to perform anywhere that alcohol was served. When she collapsed with liver cancer, his agents arrested her on her hospital bed. They handcuffed her to the bed. They confiscated her record player. They banned her friends from seeing her. People protested outside with signs saying "Let Lady Live." When her methadone was cut off, she went into withdrawal and died.
And here's where #BlackLivesMatter and #AddictsLivesMatter meet. When Anslinger found out Judy Garland was a heroin addict, he didn't have her stalked and killed. He told her to take longer vacations, and reassured her studio she'd be fine. Can you spot the difference between Billie and Judy? Can you spot the difference today between the addicts in Beverley Hills who get compassionate rehab, and the addicts in South Central who get cold jail cells?
Nobody wishes the drug war on people they love -- white people, in Harry Anslinger's case. Yet when it comes to the addicts we don't know, we have chosen -- as a society -- a policy of mass caging instead of a policy of compassion. Why? I interviewed Eric Sterling, the lawyer who wrote the drug laws from the United States throughout the 1980s, and who now bitterly regrets it and campaigns for sensible policies. He told me about one meeting, at the height of the AIDS crisis, where he and a group of members of Congress were being briefed on the heroin crisis. He recalled that one of the members of Congress suggested a mass die-off of addicts would be a good thing. Who wants addicts to survive?
It's important to stress that most people who support the drug war don't think this way. They don't want to kill addicts. They tell themselves that they are being harsh in order to be kind -- that you have to threaten punishment in order to encourage current addicts to stop, and to prevent other people from falling down that dark well. I don't judge anyone for believing this -- it is based on compassion, and it has been backed with an enormous amount of government propaganda for a hundred years.
But I would urge anyone who sincerely believes this to look at the evidence. There are places that have tried the punishment approach and addicts keep dying in huge numbers. And there are places that have tried the compassionate approach and addicts start to survive and recover in much greater numbers. I have seen this all over the world, from Switzerland to the North of England. To give just one example, in Portugal, after they decriminalized all drugs and chose to spend the money on caring for addicts instead, the rate of injecting drug use has fallen by 50 percent, and overdose and HIV transmission among addicts have come crashing down.
To choose this better path, we have to undo a lot of the assumptions that have been drilled into our heads. As Harry Anslinger was stalking Billie Holiday, he was helping to invent a whole new way of thinking about addicts -- as vampires, or zombies, or predators. We have dehumanized people who get addicted to banned drugs in a way we (thankfully) don't dehumanize people who get addicted to legal drugs, like alcohol. We have to recover the ability to see the humanity of addicts -- that they are people like us, with feelings and dreams and the capacity to be heroic.
I learned about this from many people -- but nobody taught it to me more than a man called Bud Osborn.
In the year 2000 Bud was a homeless street addict on the streets of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. His neighborhood had the highest concentration of addicts anywhere in North America. It was the place at the end of the line in the city at the end of the line of the American continent, and all around him, Bud's friends were dying. They would shoot up behind dumpsters so the police wouldn't see them -- but if the police can't see you, nor can anyone else, so if you start to OD, you will be found days later, dead.
Bud decided he had to do something. But he also thought, What can I do? I am just a homeless junkie.
Then he had an idea. He gathered some addicts and proposed something simple. He asked them, Why don't we arrange a schedule, and patrol the alleyways ourselves? If we see one of us ODing, we can call an ambulance.
The addicts started to do it and their death rates began to tumble. That was great in itself, but it also meant they began to think about themselves differently -- maybe we're not pieces of shit. Maybe we are people who can achieve things. They started to turn up at public meetings to discuss The Menace Of The Addicts, and they would sit at the back, and after a while, they would put up their hands and explain they were The Addicts, and ask what they could do differently. People complained they left needles lying around, so the patrols were extended to collect discarded needles.
Bud learned that in Frankfurt, Germany, they had opened safe injecting rooms where people could use their drugs monitored by doctors, and that it had massively reduced the death toll. So Bud and hundreds of other addicts began to stalk Philip Owen, the right-wing mayor of Vancouver, everywhere he went, carrying a coffin, asking how long it would be before he ended the deaths.
Nobody had much optimism. Philip Owen was a right-wing businessman from a rich family who had said that addicts should be carted off to the local military base.
But then, after protesting for years, something nobody expected happened. Philip Owen wondered who the hell these people were, and he went to the Downtown Eastside incognito, and he spent night after night talking with addicts. And he was blown away. He had had no idea what their lives were like.
So Philip Owen made an announcement. He held a press conference with the police chief, the coroner, and the addicts, and he announced they were opening the first injecting room in North America. It opened, and Philip Owen's right-wing party was so appalled they eventually deselected him, and his political career ended. He was replaced by a left-wing candidate who kept the injecting room open.
But the taboo was broken. And now the results are in. Ten years on, the average life expectancy on the Downtown Eastside has improved by ten years, and overdose is down by 80 percent. Philip Owen told me he would do it all again in a heart beat.
Bud died last year. He was only in his early sixties, but life as a homeless addict during a drug war, before there was any help, had wrecked his body. For his memorial service they sealed off the streets of the Downtown Eastside, where he had once lived on the pavements, and enormous crowds gathered. There were a lot of people in that crowd who knew they were alive because of the uprising Bud began all those years before.
I learned so much from my friendship with Bud, but here's what I learned more than anything else: You never write anyone off. You never dismiss a human being. You never can assume anyone is worthless. It's hard to think of somebody with less power or respect than a homeless street addict -- but Bud saved thousands of lives, and he changed his city forever.
If you are reading this and thinking, Yes, the abuse of addicts is wrong, but what can we do? We all feel powerless. We all feel sometimes like we can't make a difference. Then think of Bud. If we band together, we have so much more power than we realize.
Every human has the capacity to be a hero -- including addicts. Every life matters. Every addict's life matters. Marcia Powell deserved better than being cooked in a cage. Billie Holiday deserved better than being handcuffed on her deathbed. Bud deserved better than years on the streets. In the twentieth century, we chose policies that kill addicts over policies that save addicts. As year 101 of the drug war begins, we have a chance to save the next Marcia, and Billie, and Bud. There is a better way waiting for us -- if only we are ready to seize it.
CORRECTION: In the original posting of this article, there were two details that were incorrect. The meeting Eric Sterling attended was described as being with senators, when it was in fact with members of Congress, and the subject of the meeting was not specifically clean needles, but about the heroin epidemic more widely. My apologies for this mistake.
Please share your stories of addicts you have known, or addicts who have been killed by our wrong approach, with the hashtag #AddictsLivesMatter.
Johann Hari's book 'Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs' is published by Bloomsbury as a hardback, ebook and audiobook. To find out where to buy it, or for more information, click here.
The sources for this article can be found in the book.
You can watch the video of Johann Hari's recent speech about #AddictsLivesMatter.
Johann will be speaking and signing books at Politics and Prose in Washington DC on the evening of the 29th Jan, the 92nd Street Y in NYC on the lunchtime of the 30th Jan, Red Emma's in Baltimore on the 4th Feb, and at Ben McNally bookstore in Toronto (with Naomi Klein) on the 11th Feb.