Drugs

Drugs Are Actually Good, Says Columbia Professor

In his new book, neuroscientist Prof Carl Hart argues that addiction isn’t the only way to think about drug use.
February 19, 2021, 9:00am
Dancers in a nightclub
Photo: Getty Images 

When was the last time you read a story on heroin that didn’t involve addiction? Or about how meth isn’t really that bad? 

In his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, neuroscientist and Columbia University professor Carl Hart argues that addiction isn’t the only way to think about drug use. In fact, he’s very open about his own use of 2-CB, cocaine, heroin and weed, even putting himself through opioid withdrawal to see what it was like. 

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We gave Hart a call to find out more about the new book, and how the war on drugs perpetuates inequality and racial injustice.

VICE: You grew up in Miami amid the crack epidemic. How did that shape your attitudes to drugs at the time?
Carl Hart
: Just like most people in the early-to-mid eighties, I believed crack cocaine was the enemy, destroying all those communities. So I thought I’d study drugs and neuroscience as a way of helping my community and finding a way to cure crack addiction.

Years later, I discovered I was wrong. It wasn’t crack that was the problem, it was the same things as before: unemployment, discrimination, poor education and poor opportunities. People got vilified as crack users and crack was blamed for their demise, but we ignored all of those other factors. We blamed and scapegoated drugs.

What changed your mind?
I had believed that once you’re addicted to crack, your mind focused entirely on that substance to the exclusion of everything else. I was awarded millions of dollars in funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to dispense thousands of doses of crack, which users would smoke in front of me, in order for us to study their behaviour. 

In the lab, we saw people could take or leave crack depending on the options available to them. For example, in one experiment we offered a hit of crack versus a $5 reward. Most of them showed up on time to collect their $5 reward. They were responsible as to all the other demands we placed on their schedules. They [crack users] were some of the most reliable people we worked with.

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One of the arguments in your book is that for most of us, drugs can be fun and not a problem. What do you think is the biggest thing people get wrong about drug use and addiction?
That it’s not about addiction. We need to understand that most people who use are not addicted and feel predominantly positive effects. That’s from our research, from personal anecdotes. It’s just the reality. 

What is the main message you want to get out there?
What I’m trying to get people to understand is we’ve been lied to. Me, as a scientist, I’ve been part of a community misleading the public. The predominant effects of drugs are positive – we never say that. Maybe some like to err on the side of caution, but that caution has tremendous negative consequences. It facilitates people being arrested, harassed and sometimes even killed because they’re identified as drug users.

A 'before and after' billboard in Minnesota​, depicting a woman on crystal meth. Photo: Steve Skjold/Alamy

A 'before and after' billboard in Minnesota​, depicting a woman on crystal meth. Photo: Steve Skjold/Alamy

Why did you decide to be open about your own drug use?
I do what other people do, whether it’s alcohol, tobacco or heroin. I’ve decided to be open because if I ask everyone else to come out of the closet, I have to do it myself, and present a more realistic view of what a drug user looks like. In the media – and the UK media is among the worst at this – the framing is always with addiction. Even though most people using drugs don’t meet that criteria, it’s always discussed in those terms. That’s just bad journalism.

What’s your drug of choice?
That’s an adolescent question. It’s like “what is your favourite sexual position?” It depends on what you want to achieve. When you wake up in the morning, you might want to drink caffeine. If you’re out dancing at a party, you might want to take amphetamine or MDMA. If you’re relaxing at home, alcohol or heroin. We have to be nuanced about drugs the same way we are about everything else.

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At one point in the book, you took heroin and morphine for three weeks straight and then suddenly stopped to give yourself opioid withdrawal, on purpose. Why?
I thought for many years heroin withdrawal was like flu. But it’s like the flu in the sense that it won’t kill you. Very few people die. I wanted to practise what I preach and demonstrate that physical dependence is not the same as “addiction”, which is when there’s a disruption in your ability to function. 

Could I meet my obligations the next day? I did. It wasn’t pleasant and I wouldn’t do it again, but I wanted to know for myself. I hate how they show addiction in the movies. Their goal is to dramatise, to entertain. I get it. But it concerns me because the stakes are so high. A lot of people watch movies like Trainspotting and think it’s representative, but it’s not.

It’s quite easy for me to be honest about my drug consumption because I’ve a chequered past, but others are afraid of losing their jobs.
Yes, or for example we’d have to think of the young mother who’d loose access to her children. There are different ways you can come out of the closet. Some may come out to their family and friends; others may come out to a wider circle. People have to make that decision on their own.

What about drug dealers? Most people do not have sympathy or compassion for them, why not? 
I think we’ve an exaggerated negative feeling towards those who supply the drugs. If someone knowingly sells a substance that’s tainted, for example if you tell customers you have heroin but you know it has fentanyl, that person is dishonourable, unscrupulous and deserves our scorn. But if they’re selling heroin and that’s exactly what they have, they’re just filling a gap that’s there because of our restrictive drug policies, the same thing folks have done throughout history. I don’t harbour any ill-feeling towards them.

Speaking of tainted substances, what would you say to lawmakers who are against pill-testing or safe consumption sites, because they don’t want to send the wrong message or look like they’re endorsing getting high?
It’s dangerous because you’re putting the health of people who use drugs at risk. We have to accept that drug use is not going anywhere because it’s giving people pleasure, joy and happiness. Drugs can do that. Since that’s the case, we have to figure out how to make that activity as safe as possible if we have the technology, which we do. If you can warn people not to use the tainted substance but choose not to use the technology, that’s irresponsible. I would even say it’s criminal.

What do we most need to address in terms of solutions to the drug problem?
The first thing that needs to be done is enact legislation stating that no one will be arrested for drug use and or drug possession. But ultimately, it would be ideal to regulate the drugs people seek in a similar way that alcohol is regulated. In this way, the number of tainted drugs on the street would be dramatically reduced as well as drug-related stigma.

Thank you, Dr. Hart.

Niko Vorobyov is a government-certified (convicted) drug dealer turned writer and author. You can follow him on Twitter: @Lemmiwinks_III.