Carl Hart has been called a “truth teller,” and the title could not be more fitting. As associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia, Hart studies the effects of psychoactive drug use on human subjects, aiming to debunk the myths about these substances that often create more chaos than the drugs themselves. Hart was the first tenured African-American professor in the sciences at Columbia, and won the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award in 2014 for his book High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. Hannah Wederquist-Keller sat down with Hart to discuss his next book, his class at Columbia, and the danger of drug hysteria.
What are you working on right now?
I’m writing a new book right now. I am, of course, teaching, and trying to get a new study off the ground… about different drug combinations—methamphetamine with oxycodone. I’m writing op-eds—trying to stay relevant in the public discussions about how we should regulate drugs.
I’ve read a few things about the drug decriminalization process in Portugal. I would love to hear your thoughts on why it’s working, and if you think it could work in the United States.
In [my] book, I took the last chapter to talk about Portugal. ... Portugal is working, in part, because they start with an assumption that is reasonable: They know that they’re not going to get rid of all drug use. No society has ever done that. We’re one of the few stupid societies that have policies called “Drug Free America.” ... There’s never been a drug-free society. In Portugal … you get caught with drugs, you pay a fine, you might get a warning—I don’t know. But it’s just viewed as reasonable there. It’s no big deal. You don’t have this increased effort, trying to catch people using drugs. So, I think that’s one of the reasons that it works. It works because they are reasonable.
That makes a lot of sense. There’s been a lot of news concerning the rise in heroin use. How is it affecting the idea of drug use in the United States?
There’s a lot of news about the rise of heroin use, so you have to think about the sources that are saying that. They’re mainly talking about the number of persons who have used heroin at least once in the past year—that number is 670,000. That’s up from 2002, when it was about 400,000. Now, if you look at that number, it looks like heroin use has increased. Well, if you compare that number to something like marijuana, the number of marijuana smokers is about 20 million. If you compare that number to the number of cocaine users, it’s about 2 million. Heroin users are not even near a million.
And then, if you start to look at the number of people who we call “current heroin users”—people who have used heroin in the past 30 days—that number now is 335,000 or something like that. In 2006, it was higher than that. It was 340,000, and so that number has actually gone down since 2006. Then, if you look at the number of new heroin users every year in the United States since 1980, 30 years or so, that number has remained between 100,000 and 200,000. It has not changed. When people start talking about this increase in heroin use, you have to ask them what they mean. The increase in heroin use has been wildly exaggerated. As you can see, it doesn’t compare anywhere near cocaine use, nowhere near marijuana use.
These things get exaggerated based on some high-profile death—Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cory Monteith… The reason why they died is because they combined heroin with another sedative, like alcohol or benzodiazepine. So the public health message should be telling people not to combine heroin with another substance, like alcohol or benzos, rather than promoting this hysterical view of this new epidemic, when in fact, it’s not an epidemic.
There’s obviously a push right now to legalize marijuana. What do you think about legalization and decriminalization of that drug in particular?
I have argued for decriminalization for a number of reasons, rather than legalization. Now, I should tell you, when Colorado was considering legalizing marijuana before they passed, I went out and did a number of public lectures and talked to people about marijuana and tried to help their educational efforts. So it’s up to them—and I respect whatever their voters decided. My major concern about legalization was simple. As you make these drugs more available, one of the things that happens is that the hysteria surrounding the drug also increases—not necessarily the real effects, but the hysteria. People like Maureen Dowd, the writer for the New York Times, wrote about having eaten some cookie or something laced with THC when she went out to Colorado, and she ate this cookie and was debilitated for eight hours or something because it was so strong. This is part of the hysteria. She wasn’t a pot smoker, she didn’t do marijuana or THC, yet she eats this entire cookie. That’s like me, not being an alcohol drinker, drinking a fifth of vodka—that’s stupid. But she wrote this piece, and it got a lot of attention, and people act as if this piece indicates the dangers of marijuana. All psychoactive drugs are potentially dangerous if you take them in large amounts: alcohol, tobacco, acetaminophen, all of these things. As you legalize drugs, you get pieces like this, you get hysteria like this, and that kind of hysteria oftentimes drives the bad policy. It has very little do with actual drug effects; it’s the hysteria. I was arguing for decriminalizing drugs as maybe an intermediary step, so you could also increase the proper amount of education. Then if you decide to legalize, that’s fine, as long as people are educated about what they’re doing and are inoculated against hysterical accounts like that.
How has being a college professor shaped your way of teaching, your way of writing, and your perspective?
The nice thing about being a college professor is that you get challenged from very intellectually aggressive students, so you have to bring your A-game to class, and I’m better for it. I hope they are too. It allows me to speak to broader audiences other than just scientists. Because if you’re teaching, you’re not only talking to your peers who know what you’re talking about. ... The college professor thing allows you to be tuned in to the interests of the general public, and it really… helps me become a better communicator, because you know, you’ve heard some scientists speak and you don’t know what the hell they said because they’re speaking in jargon. Being a college professor, you can’t speak in jargon—or I guess you can if you don’t care about your course ratings. But I care about mine, so I try to communicate a little more effectively.
We appreciate that. The public perception of the drug user seems to be changing a little bit, but most of the time drug users are still seen as “bad people.” Do you think this perception will change eventually?
Yes, it will change as people come out of the closet, so to speak. President Obama, in his book Dreams From My Father, talked extensively about his cocaine use, about his marijuana use. As long as we have respectable people, people who are making a contribution to society, [being] honest about what they’ve done or what they do, it will change. But, when those people hide in the closet, it decreases the likelihood that it will change. The vast majority of us have used drugs with no problem. That’s a fact. But it’s difficult to get people to say this, in part because of the way we have vilified drugs in the country for so long.
Note: An earlier version of this article reported that Carl Hart was the first African-American professor to receive tenure at Columbia. Hart was the first tenured African-American professor in the sciences at Columbia. The Eye regrets the error.