Much of what has been accepted as conventional wisdom when it comes to the effects illegal drugs have on humans may be wrong and the federal government’s drug policy needs an overhaul, according to a provocative new book by Dr. Carl Hart, a New York-based scholar and researcher.
In “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society,” Hart draws on his more than 22 years of professional experience and personal observations of people addicted to drugs while growing up in a tough neighborhood.
For years, the study of drugs has relied on animal testing, but Hart contended the best way to determine the effect of drugs on human is to study the people who use them.
Hart’s book is part memoir and part research, including his findings that reveal a new perspective on commonly held ideas about drugs, poverty, race and why America’s War on Drugs is failing.
“Much of what we are doing in terms of drug education, treatment, and public policy is inconsistent with scientific data,” Hart wrote in his book. “In order to come to terms with what I have seen in the lab and read in the scientific literature, there is nothing else to do but speak out.”
He said that research has shown that only about 10 to 15 percent of those who use illicit drugs are actually addicted and that drugs have been blamed for a myriad of social problems, including crime and domestic violence, which have their roots in areas beyond drug abuse.
“Drugs are not as dangerous as we have made them out to be,” Hart said in an interview with WNYC in New York. “I’m trying to get people to use the data, the empirical evidence, and when you do that, you realize that we have been lied to, the public has been lied to.”
Hart is an associate professor of psychology in both the departments of psychiatry and psychology at Columbia University, and director of the Residential Studies and Methamphetamine Research Laboratories at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
One of his major areas of research is a focus on the interactions between commonly abused drugs and the biological and environmental factors that impact human behavior and physiology.
For many people, Hart argued, it is the social and legal consequences of drug use that plague many, moreso than addiction, especially in the black community.
“More than 50 percent of the guys who I grew up with spent time in jail on some drug-related charge,” said Hart, who supports decriminalization of most drug use. “It’s always some minor trafficking or possession charge. It’s so normalized.”
Hart has even taken the stand and submitted written testimony in family court cases around New York City, advocating for children not to be taken from their parents, even if the adults tested positive for marijuana.
Not everyone agrees with Hart’s argument, including Dr. Herb Kleber, deputy drug czar under President George H.W. Bush and the man who hired Hart.
“I don’t think legalization is the answer,” he told WNYC. “We don’t want to lose a generation by making these drugs more readily available.”
Hart said he doesn’t support legalization and he has warned that many street drugs are cut with substances that are more dangerous than the drugs themselves.
He said he would rather see a drug policy that is steeped in solid scientific data than tactics that he said are designed primarily to scare people away from drug use.