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Everything Americans Think They Know About Drugs Is Wrong: A Scientist Explodes the Myths

Columbia University scientist Dr. Carl Hart combines research and anecdotes from his life to explain how false assumptions have created a disastrous drug policy.
 
 
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What many Americans, including many scientists, think they know about drugs is turning out to be totally wrong. For decades, drug war propaganda has brainwashed Americans into blaming drugs for problems ranging from crime to economic deprivation. In his new book High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, Dr. Carl Hart blows apart the most common myths about drugs and their impact on society, drawing in part on his personal experience growing up in an impoverished Miami neighborhood. Dr. Hart has used marijuana and cocaine, carried guns, sold drugs, and participated in other petty crime, like shoplifting. A combination of what he calls choice and chance brought him to the Air Force and college, and finally made him the first black, tenured professor of sciences at Columbia University.

Intertwined with his story about the struggles of families and communities stressed by lack of capital and power over their surroundings is striking new research on substance use. Dr. Hart uses his life and work to reveal that drugs are not nearly as harmful as many think. For example, most people who use the most “addicting” drugs do not develop a problem. Rather, Dr. Hart says, drugs are scapegoated for problems related to poverty. The policies that result from this misconception are catastrophically misguided. AlterNet spoke with Dr. Hart about his life and research.

Kristen Gynne: What are some of the false conclusions about drugs you are challenging?

Carl Hart: There are multiple false conclusions. There is a belief, for example, that crack cocaine is so addictive it only took one hit to get hooked, and that it is impossible to use heroin without becoming addicted. There was another belief that methamphetamine users are cognitively impaired. All of these are myths that have have been perpetuated primarily by law enforcement, and law enforcement deals with a limited, select group of people—people who are, in many cases, behaving badly. But to generalize that to all drug users is not only shortsighted and naive, it’s also irresponsible. The impact of that irresponsible behavior has been borne primarily by black communities. Nobody really cares about black communities, and that's why this irresponsible behavior has been allowed to continue.

It's also true that we've missed critical opportunities to challenge our basic assumptions about drugs. If drugs really were as damaging as we are led to believe, a respectable society should do something to address that problem. But the thing is, the very assumptions driving our drug policy are wrong, and must be questioned.    

KG: How does the lack of people of color in academia or research affect our understanding of drugs?

CH: I'd just like to be clear, I don't say people of color, I say black people, because people of color can mean a number of other [races]. I'm talking about black people who, like me, when we go back to our communities and we ask about people who we grew up with, the response is, "Well, they got caught up with a drug charge, they're upstate. They're doing some time” or, “Oh, he's doing better now that he got out of jail. He can't really find a good job, but he's doing his best.”   

It would be nice if we had black scientists, more black people in science, to incorporate these kinds of experiences as they think about the questions they investigate. The problem is it’s so homogenous that critical questions about our community are ignored because they're not seen as being important.

KG: And the result is that they don't comprehend environment, or the other variables that are affecting someone's decisions or behavior, and miss the mark?

 
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