Growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood in the 1970’s, Carl Hart was no stranger to life on the streets. One of eight kids, living in decrepit low-income housing projects, Hart watched his abusive father physically torment their mother for years.
Raised amid gunshots, domestic violence, and utter poverty, Hart was using and pushing a variety of drugs, had held someone at gunpoint, was committing robberies, and had unknowingly fathered a child – all by the age of 16. He seemed to be right on track to becoming another statistic in south Florida, another wasted youth.
Motivated by a handful of timely mentors, pushed by a knack for athletics, and eventually drawn to a career in the Air Force, Hart capitalized on just enough opportunities to avoid the fate that had claimed so many of his friends and family members in the projects.
Today, at the age of 46, Carl Hart is an Associate Professor Ph.D. in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Columbia University. His journey, from one of Miami’s toughest ‘hoods to the Ivy covered halls of one of the world’s most prestigious universities, has given him what he believes to be a unique perspective on human behavior when it comes to drug use.
In his new book High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, Hart applies the experience he gained pushing crack as a teen with a trove of scientific data and studies to support his claim that, contrary to popular belief, drugs are not a cause of a declining society, but rather, a symptom of it.
The War on Drugs, Hart contends, is not only a failure but is the wrong “war” to be fighting. Despair, he says, the things that cause our depression, should be the target of researchers and lawmakers. This, among other behavioral topics, guides his studies in neuropharmacology at Columbia.
That all sounds logical enough, though not very fast paced. But Hart has a solution that he would like to see instituted now, and the controversy around his idea has made him a lightning rod for criticism from all directions.
Hart – who sits on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, which is affiliated with the National Institutes of Health – believes that the U.S. needs to decriminalize all drugs, now. Everything that we have been told about drugs, by the government, the cops, our teachers, our parents, it is all wrong according to Hart. He points to a successful 12 year old drug decriminalization program in Portugal as a possible model for American legalization.
The co-author of what he calls the #1 college-level textbook for behavioral drug use, Hart hopes his new mainstream title will cross more demographics and open more eyes to what he sees as America’s true “drug problem”. He says that the controversial suggestion he puts forth in the new book has already cost him research grants and some respect among his peers in the psychology field, but that it is “time to set the record straight”.
Casting doubt on the claim that illegal drugs are necessarily addictive, Hart points out that our past four Presidents have admitted drug use in their past. When asked about the difference between “good” and “bad” drugs in an interview with Huffington Post, Hart draws an analogy to cars, saying that all cars get you where you want to go. It just depends on how far you want to go, how fast you want to get there, and how responsible you are about operating it.
Hart’s own studies have always involved actual human test subjects and his own experience, which he feels is superior to proudly sober grad students pumping lab rats full of drugs.
He says bad information from his own peers is causing undue strife in the lower levels of society, and specifically in the black community. The only African American male Ph.D. in the country the year he graduated, and the only tenured black faculty member in the sciences at Columbia, Hart says that a shortage of diversity in his field undeniably leads to a lack of new ideas and thinking.
But before the cannabis community embraces what may look like an ally in Mr. Hart, consider his comments about marijuana in the same HuffPost interview from May.
When asked if he thought that recent marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington would help his cause and further the debate he was trying to promote, he responded sharply with “Hell no. It’s a problem.”
He refers to medical marijuana advocates as “sort-of-legalizers” and says that they “look down on other drugs” and only promote cannabis.
The interviewer then asks Hart if any drugs scare him. His answer, marijuana and alcohol.
“Marijuana — I just don’t get it,” Hart states, “It’s not that good, and then it has these potential negative consequences. There are far better drugs, and I just don’t get — I think that people do it because of the chicness or the forbidden-fruit bullshit.”
No, really, he recommends a nice spike of heroin or snort of meth instead. You know, because of the “potential negative consequences” of pot. He does admit that heroin and meth might not be a good choice if you “have to go to work the next day and get some sleep”. For that, he offers cocaine as a much better alternative to cannabis.
A happily married father of two, Hart’s…well…heart may be in the right place when it comes to allowing adults to regain full sovereignty over what they choose to put into their bodies. But his apparent aversion to the ever-growing cannabis community is sure to alienate what could have been a big source of support for his cause.
Much of Mr. Hart’s opinion highlighted in this article was taken from a promotional interview, not from the book itself which has gotten pretty favorable reviews overall.