Carl Hart, a professor and neuroscientist at New York's Columbia University, has dedicated his career to researching complex interactions between neurobiology, environmental factors and drug abuse. Prof. Hart's findings are surprising and shed new light on the dismal failure of society's "war on drugs."
He states that current cultural beliefs about drug use are largely dangerous myths that have a huge impact on society. The myths, he says, are used as tools to turn marginalized people into scapegoats - predominantly people who reside in poor, black neighborhoods in the USA. Crime and poverty are born from not drugs, but selective drug laws, ignorance and systematic dismissal of scientific evidence.
Prof. Hart isn't a stranger himself to both sides of the debate. He was born and raised in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Miami, Florida where use of illegal drugs was prevalent. He admits that he carried a gun and engaged in petty crime, including using and selling drugs. However, he relates that his forays into the world of crime had much to do with money and status - not drugs.
This prominent neuroscientist admitted that he "bought into" the predominant view that one hit of crack cocaine leads to addiction, and that illegal drugs are the driving cause for poverty and crime in neighborhoods like his. He believed the U.S. Congress was doing a good thing when in the mid-1980s, passed drugs making trafficking crack cocaine worthy of punishment 100 times harsher than laws governing powdered cocaine.
However, as time went by and he became involved in neurobiological research, he began to view the situation much differently. He realized that crime and poverty existed long before crack cocaine was available, and he no longer believed that solving the drug problem would eradicate crime and poverty.
In fact, drugs should be decriminalized, citing statistics that 80 to 90 percent of people who use illegal drugs don’t have a problem and never become addicted. Most drug users, he says, are responsible members of society – people who have jobs and families. The idea that drug users are bound to fall into crime and debauchery is yet another myth.
“People have always used drugs, and they always will,” says Prof. Hart. “It’s naive to think that we can eradicate drugs and drug use.”
As for the tremendously uneven treatment meted out to crack cocaine users, Prof. Hart states that crack cocaine and powder cocaine have identical effects on the body, which depend solely on the route of administration. The distorted laws explain, he says, why one-third of black men in the United States can expect to spend time in prison, compared to one in 20 white men, even though cocaine use is more prevalent in the white population.
He relates results of research conducted on both animals and people. In hundreds of experiments, he asserts, both chose alternatives over the drug about half of the time when viable alternatives were available. For example, rats opted for a sweet treat or a sexually viable mate, while humans addicted to heroin or meth often chose small amounts of cash or other rewards over drugs. Factors other than addiction cause crime and poverty, according to Prof. Hart. What then, is the solution?
He is adamant that we must tell people the truth about drugs. For example, people should be informed that use of heroin can be deadly when the drug is combined with alcohol or other sedatives, not that heroin users are sure to become addicted. Like the research subjects, people must have viable alternatives that help them rise above poverty and crime, which include economic opportunities, marketable skills, employment, education and secure social ties.
“We must be honest about drug use, and we need to keep people safe,” says Dr. Hart, “even when it makes us very uncomfortable, because we have all bought into the myths about drugs and drug use.”