“I grew up in the hood in Miami in a poor neighborhood. I came from a community in which drug use was prevalent. I kept a gun in my car. I engaged in petty crime. I used and sold drugs. But I stand before you today also — emphasis on also — a professor at Columbia University who studies drug addiction.”
That’s how Carl Hart, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology and psychiatry, opened a recent TED talk he gave about his research into addiction. After his difficult youth, Hart said he toed the drug war line for a number of years: “I fully believed that the crime and poverty in my community was a direct result of crack cocaine.” He bought into the notion, pushed by policymakers in the 1980s and 1990s, that you could get hooked on crack and other drugs after just one hit.
But his research has disabused him of these notions. He recruited cocaine and meth users into his lab, and over a period of several days offered them some options: they could either receive hits of their drug of choice, or they could take payments of five dollars instead. Crucially, the payments offered were less than the value of the drugs they could consume.
Contrary to the notion of the craven drug fiend who will do literally anything for one more hit, Hart found that half of cocaine and meth users opted for the money over the drugs. And when he increased the payments to 20 dollars, closer to 80 percent of meth users chose the money. The lesson? “Attractive alternatives dramatically decrease drug use,” he said in his talk.
This speaks to another point Hart made, which is worth quoting at length:
80 to 90 percent of people who use illegal drugs are not addicts. They don’t have a drug problem. Most are responsible members of our society. They are employed. They pay their taxes. They take care of their families. And in some cases they even become president of the United States.
He’s right, of course. Among people who have ever used marijuana, only 9 percent become addicted. That rate is 11 percent for cocaine and 17 percent for stimulants like meth. Even the vast majority of people who use heroin — 77 percent of them — never get addicted to the drug.
When it comes to his own kids, Hart, who is black, is less worried about drugs and more worried about the people who enforce drug laws. He says the effects of drugs at the individual-level are predictable and easy to understand: you smoke some weed, you will experience X effects after Y amount of time. But interactions with the police are a different story. “I don’t know how to keep my children safe with the police because, particularly when it comes to black folks, interactions with police are not predictable,” he said in a recent Q&A hosted by Ebony magazine.
Hart says that many recent high-profile police killings have occurred under the aegis of the war on drugs. “In all of these cases, authorities suspected that the deceased individual was either intoxicated from or selling an illicit substance,” Hart writes. Overinflated claims about the dangers of drug use have “created an environment where unjustified police killings are more likely to occur,” he says. They’ve also created a world where DEA agents can interrogate public transportation passengers and take all their money when they don’t like their answers. Or where IRS agents can empty your bank account because they don’t like how you deposited your money there.
But black families and communities typically bear the brunt of these harsh measures. Hart offers a troubling statistic in his talk: 1 in 3 black men can expect to do some jail time over the course of their lives. This reality has hit him right at home: “I’m a father of three black sons,” he said. “One has spent time in jail for drug laws.”
© 2015, The Washington Post