Near the beginning of Dr. Carl Hart’s new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, you learn that he has studied and worked as a “drug abuse scientist” for more than twenty-five years—and that he’s entering his fifth year as a “regular heroin user.”
Maybe not what you’d expect from a neuroscience Ph.D. and Columbia psychology professor. But that is, after all, what he’s getting at in his book. Many of the ideas we have about drugs are all wrong, he says. Hart had his own preconceptions when he began his job as a drug abuse researcher, but the harmful effects he expected to find never materialized.
“Here’s the bottom line: over my more than twenty-five-year career, I have discovered that most drug-use scenarios cause little or no harm and that some responsible drug-use scenarios are actually beneficial for human health and functioning,” he writes.
Many of our misguided fears about drugs, Dr. Hart argues, began largely as a result of American racism. Up until the early years of the twentieth century, “Americans were free to alter their consciousness with the substances of their choice.” Then, fear of intermingling between Chinese and white Americans in opium dens, and racist sensationalizing exaggerating the harms of cocaine, led to the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. (Among the most odious and ridiculous of these assertions, Hart writes, was one that “prompted some southern police forces to switch to a larger .38-caliber weapon in order to deal with the mythical black, cocainized superhuman.”) The Harrison Act, and the racial rhetoric stoked to buoy its passage, would set the tone for America’s discriminatory drug policy and enforcement in the last century.
Because these attitudes have also shaped our societal beliefs about drugs, Dr. Hart argues, many of the behaviors we regularly attribute to substances—from the likelihood of addiction to the “notion that recreational drugs cause brain dysfunction”—in fact have other causes. Drugs, he writes, “are inert substances,” whose abuse is usually the result of co-occurring conditions, be those psychological or circumstantial. Their use, Hart believes, should be allowed for grown-ups—“by that I mean autonomous, responsible, well-functioning, healthy adults”—as part of the American right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Though it’s common these days to hear the argument that America’s approach to drugs is deeply racist, flawed, and overdue for correction, it’s also hard to imagine a world where we can all do drugs freely. So GQ asked Dr. Hart to help imagine what that world might look like, and how we can fix our drug problem—which is not a problem with drugs, he says, but with our ignorance about them.
GQ: What’s wrong with the current and historical relationship to drugs in our society?
Dr. Carl Hart: We don’t think of these drugs in rational terms. We think of these particular drugs as producing unique effects and it’s just not true. But when you do that, when you think of these drugs as producing these unique effects, the response is not rational. When we think about when these drugs were banned, we can see this even more clearly.
When we think about cocaine, for example, we banned it for irrational reasons, for reasons of American racism. Same thing with opioids. We paired these drugs with the behavior of groups we didn’t like, and behavior that we exaggerated, like crime, like Black men being with white women. So the drugs became more about these other issues that were sadly exaggerated. And so we’re still doing that today.
We’re looking at these drugs in unrealistic terms. And what I’m trying to do is to have a conversation, or to get people to think about the drugs from a rational, reasonable perspective. Like, cocaine does not produce superhuman strength, heroin does not cause you to be addicted after one or even a couple of hits. And it doesn’t take over your life. When we say things like that, that’s just simply not true.