Carl Hart wants us to think differently about drugs. A neuropsychopharmacologist from Columbia University – meaning he’s a researcher and teacher on the effects of drugs on human brains – Hart has dedicated his work to dispelling myths about illegal drug use.
He thinks all drugs should be legal, and he’s spent the last year and a half sharing his views on a worldwide book tour promoting, his partmemoir and part-neuroscience text High Price. “Eighty-to-ninety per cent of the people who use drugs are like me,” Hart told his audience at Simon Fraser University’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts in June. “They pay taxes, they take care of their families, they are responsible members of our society.”
Gesturing to the screen behind him, which displayed images of U.S. presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, he said, “In some cases, they even become president of the United States.”
Addiction rates do vary: nine per cent of marijuana users, 15 to 20 per cent of cocaine and crack cocaine users, and roughly one-quarter of heroin users will become addicted. Yet legal drugs like alcohol and cigarettes have addiction rates of 10 to 15 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively.
So why do we hand down harsh criminal penalties for using crack when legal cigarettes have a greater risk of dependency? Hart boils it down to racism.
“Selective enforcement of these drugs laws, in effect, serve as a tool to marginalize black males, especially, and keep them in this vicious cycle of incarceration and isolation from mainstream society,” he told the audience.
A DISCRIMINATORY SYSTEM
Hart didn’t come by this knowledge solely from his research in Columbia’s labs. He grew up poor in a Miami ghetto, and as a youth carried a gun, sold drugs, used drugs, and watched as the same life path he was fixed to follow led so many of his loved ones to ruin.
“Eventually I decided to get serious about my education. Earning a PhD in neuroscience kind of changed my trajectory,” he said wryly.
An American, Hart focuses his research on U.S. drug crime statistics, including sentencing for crack cocaine possession that is 18 times the sentencing for cocaine, even though they’re the same drug. It used to be worse. From 1986 until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, sentencing for crack cocaine in the United States was 100 times that of cocaine possession. If you were caught with 5mg of crack, you received the same sentence as someone caught with 500mg of cocaine. “We have enforced this law such that black people in the United States represent 80 per cent of those people arrested under those laws,” said Hart, noting there is no dif ference in cocaine use between black and white U.S. populations.
WITH THE WAR ON DRUGS CROWD, NO DEBATE
Hart doesn’t bother to debate his findings with the anti-drug crowd. “I have to make sure I don’t engage in conversations with people who don’t abide by the rules of evidence,” is one of his best-known quotes.
Speaking the day after his Vancouver talk, Hart said he prefers to talk to people open to listening.
“Once they have the information, then they can put pressure on their legislators,” he said. “And that’s my strategy, to basically educate folks. Help people to understand.”
Once they understand, Hart lays out how they can help, from knowing the science behind his work and engaging in factual debates, to holding yourself and others accountable for racism. Perhaps the most difficult ask is coming out as a drug user to help dispel the myth that only addicts use illegal drugs. While Hart is open about his drug use, he said in his case it helps that he’s proven himself as an award-winning Columbia University professor.
“For [other] people when they think about coming out of the closet, they may have to do it on a smaller scale, like to friends and relatives,” he said.
Hart acknowledges it isn’t an easy path to tread: he’s lost friends and research funding due to his views. His book tour has been the main source of research funding as of late. But these are sacrifices he’s willing to make to change society’s attitude and policies towards drugs.
“The focus shouldn’t be on whether you are using drugs, but it should be on your deeds,” Hart told his Vancouver audience before they erupted into their second standing ovation of the night. “I want to make sure people are good people.”