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Debunking Some of the Biggest Myths About Addiction

Society is a long way off from understanding the "complex issues for why people really become addicted," says Dr. Carl Hart.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Lisa S.


Democracy Now! was joined by the groundbreaking neuropsychopharmacologist Dr. Carl Hart. He is the first tenured African American professor in the sciences at Columbia University, where he is an associate professor in the psychology and psychiatry departments. He is also a member of the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse and a research scientist in the Division of Substance Abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. However, long before he entered the hallowed halls of the Ivy League, Hart gained firsthand knowledge about drug usage while growing up in one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods. He recently wrote a memoir titled " High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society." In the book, he recalls his journey of self-discovery, how he escaped a life of crime and drugs and avoided becoming one of the crack addicts he now studies.

Dr. Carl Hart, we welcome you to Democracy Now! The title of your book almost was the song we were just playing, "Trouble Man"?

Dr. Carl Hart : That was my vote, "Trouble Man," but the publishers thought that it wasn’t 1973, so we should go with something more modern.

AG: Both your research findings will surprise many and also your own path in life. Let’s start by talking about, well, where you come from.

CH: Well, I come from — as you said, I grew up in the hood. And so, when we think about these communities that we care about, the communities that have been so-called devastated by drugs of abuse, I believed that narrative for a long time. In fact, I’ve been studying drugs for about 23 years; for about 20 of those years, I believed that drugs were the problems in the community. But when I started to look more carefully, started looking at the evidence more carefully, it became clear to me that drugs weren’t the problem. The problem was poverty, drug policy, lack of jobs — a wide range of things. And drugs were just one sort of component that didn’t contribute as much as we had said they have.

AG: So, talk about the findings of these studies. I mean, you’ve been publishing in the most elite scientific journals now for many years.

CH: Yes. So, one of the things that shocked me when I first started to understand what was going on, when I discovered that 80 to 90 percent of the people who actually use drugs like crack cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana — 80 to 90 percent of those people were not addicted. I thought, "Wait a second. I thought that once you use these drugs, everyone becomes addicted, and that’s why we had these problems." That was one thing that I found out. Another thing that I found out is that if you provide alternatives to people — jobs, other sort of alternatives — they don’t overindulge in drugs like this. I discovered this in the human laboratory as well as the animal laboratory. The same thing plays out in the animal literature.

AG: What do you mean? You’re saying that crack is not as addictive as everyone says?

CH: Well, when we think of crack — well, we have a beautiful example now, the past year: the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, for example. The guy used crack cocaine, and he did his job. Despite what you think of him and his politics, but he came to work every day. He did his job. The same is true even of Marion Barry. He came to work every day, did his job. In fact, he did his job so well, so the people of D.C. thought, that they voted for him even after he was convicted for using crack. But that’s the majority of crack cocaine users. Just like any other drug, most of the people who use these drugs do so without a problem.