Dr. Carl Hart defies all preconceptions of the word “neuropsychopharmacologist.” With thick dreadlocks that dangle well below his shoulders, a penchant for studded earrings, and a gold incisor that flashes when he grins, Hart, 47, was the only black man in America to receive a Ph.D in neuroscience in 1996 upon completing his doctorate at the University of Wyoming.
Though he continues to break Ivy League stereotypes as Columbia University’s first tenured African-American science professor, Hart shakes the foundations of his field in a much more significant way than race: His research suggests that for the last three decades, law enforcement, politicians, and the media have been lying to Americans about the dangers of cocaine, methamphetamines, and other illegal drugs.
“I have been studying drugs for 22 years,” Hart said in an interview with Columbia College Today. “I am here to tell you, drugs are not the bogeyman that people said they were.”
Dispelling the myths surrounding drug abuse and addiction is precisely the goal of Hart’s new book, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.
Hart’s autobiography weaves personal memoir, Drug Science 101, and enlightened discussions of American racial politics into one engaging narrative. High Price is structured around Hart’s own remarkable journey from an impoverished childhood on the streets of Miami’s roughest neighborhoods to a professional career studying drugs in the ivory towers of academia.
Along the way, Hart is unflinchingly open about his personal life. As one of eight children, he recounts being juggled between the care of his mother and other female relatives while fearing outbursts of domestic violence. He recalls slacking in school, getting involved with marijuana (using it and selling it), and committing petty crimes.
While Hart may have escaped the hood, it has never escaped his mind. Through his drug research, he has endeavored to address the issues facing marginalized black communities like his own – though his own understanding of those issues has evolved. “I thought that I was going to solve the problem of drug addiction,” he told the New York Times. “But it turns out that drug addiction wasn’t the biggest problem; the biggest problem, I found out, was actually drug policy.”
I sat down with Dr. Hart in his office at Columbia to discuss the themes presented in High Price, and the problems caused by the government’s War On Drugs.
Gabe Grand (GG): For people who haven’t read your book, what’s wrong with the way we think about drugs?
Carl Hart (CH): People have these unbelievable views about drugs. We are a wealthy country, and we spend a lot of money on science to find the right answers about drugs. We have the truth, but it’s not being shared because law enforcement, politicians, parents, and even scientists have an interest in keeping the public unaware. I’m trying to say, “Be prepared to let evidence dictate what you think.”
GG: You wrote about conducting one experiment in particular that changed your perspective on crack addiction. Could you describe it?
CH: It was a pretty simple experiment. Previous testing with lab rats had shown that providing alternative reinforcers – sweet treats, access to a sexually receptive mate, a running wheel – could decrease drug-taking behavior among animals that have learned to take drugs.
The next question was simply to ask: If you provide crack cocaine addicts with alternatives like money, will they take the money or will they take the drug? It turns out that they’ll take five bucks or a merchandise voucher over a low dosage of crack a good amount of the time. Those results contradicted the popular conception of the “crackhead” as someone who couldn’t turn down another hit.
GG: Your findings went against what scientists were saying in the late ’90s. Did you feel any pushback from the scientific community?
CH: That study ran in 2000, and it mostly went unnoticed! Back then, science was enamoured with the brain, but we didn’t have any brain imaging in the study, so we were met with, “Who cares?” I did a subsequent study with methamphetamine addicts â€” same results. But they just ignored it! Only now has that study received some attention, in part because of my book.
GG: You’ve allowed a lot of incredibly intimate details of your life to come to the surface in your book. You recount finding out as an adult that you had fathered a son at age 15. You tell us about stealing car batteries, messing around with guns, and smoking pot. Were you concerned about being scrutinized or judged by your peers in academia?
CH: Of course there’s more public scrutiny, and certainly more judgment. People certainly have their views and opinions, and I can’t control that. But I don’t really care. The major reason that I wrote High Price was because there’s a moral injustice that’s happening, and to not comment on it seemed less than ethical on my part. I have my own children, and I wanted them to know the real deal.
GG: What lesson do you want your kids to take away from High Price?
CH: In society, we oftentimes create these fantasies about who we are after someone has made it – this belief that successful folks are perfect. Think about our presidents â€” there’s this belief that those guys weren’t having affairs and doing drugs and all that. It’s such rubbish. I don’t want to participate in that game because you set young people up on this course that’s not realistic. Then they think that they have to be perfect, when in fact humans are not. I wanted to make sure that my story was out so that my kids could say that at least I was honest.
GG: Is there a need to protect kids from drugs?
CH: Sex is illegal for kids. Do we protect kids from sex? We give them a condom and we teach them about it. Do we protect teens from driving? We teach them how to drive and we make sure they use seat belts. We should do that with drugs.
GG: What kinds of things should we teach kids about drugs?
CH: If you’re going to use a drug, you need to make sure you start with low doses. Don’t take large doses if you’re getting high with an experienced drug user. If you’re going to be using heroin, don’t mix it with another sedative – that’s the thing that kills you, not the heroin. With amphetamines, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and attend to your eating habits. Route of administration: if you take a drug orally, that’s probably safer for beginners. Those are the kind of things we should teach kids.
GG: How would you respond to people who claim that teaching kids about drugs makes them more likely to become drug users?
CH: That’s simplistic thinking. We know that a large number of kids are going to engage in drug use. We need to make sure that we keep our information simple and age-appropriate. If we don’t do this education, and they use drugs, you’ll have more grieving parents out there whose kid died because of an overdose. We have a choice to make as a society: Do we want to save people, or do we want to be moralistic and sanctimonious?
GG: What’s your stance on the marijuana legalization debate?
CH: The people of Colorado and Washington, bless their hearts. They took matters into their own hands. I don’t argue for legalizing drugs, though. I argue for decriminalization because I think we’re too ignorant to legalize drugs. If we decriminalize and have a corresponding amount of education, I’m fine with that. Maybe later, we can legalize. But legalization is not something that I actively advocate for; that’s not what I do.
GG: Recently, I did an interview series with Kevin Sabet of Project SAM, who argues that marijuana shouldn’t be legalized because it will create the next “Big Tobacco” industry. What do you think about Sabet’s position?
CH: I like Kevin, although I don’t know him that well. We did an interview together on Canadian TV. I think his heart is in the right place, but he’s misinformed. His position gives no consideration to the War On Drugs and what that’s meant to various communities over the past several decades. There are whole generations of black men wiped out because their records are blemished.
If we start to deal with some of the consequences of our drug policy without legalization, I’m all ears. But if you avoid historical issues and you say, “We’re worried about creating the next big drug industry,” you’re missing the point. What do you think has happened to some of these people? Their lives are ruined. It’s like saying, “I’m worried about ending slavery because slave owners will become economically depressed.”
GG: Let’s talk about your childhood. Growing up, you bought into the government’s fear-mongering about drugs. Do you wish you’d known the truth?
CH: As I point out in my book, some of that misinformation actually kept me out of trouble â€” particularly my need to stay in control. That was actually mainly because of athletics; I wanted to make sure that I always had an edge and that no one had an edge over me because of my drug use. That was a great thing for me. It kept me on track to be, basically, a blue-collar worker.
GG: Did you have any childhood friends who played sports?
CH: All of my male friends were involved in sports. That’s what we did. Are you familiar with the poem “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden? We were being prepared to be that guy.
I wasn’t questioning things, and I wasn’t learning how to think critically. I did what I was told to do in my environment. It may not have been consistent with the mainstream, but it was normal in my context.
GG: Playing sports kept you out of trouble. How come so many of your friends ended up dealing drugs, or in jail?
CH: I cannot say that drugs got any of my friends. It wasn’t about drugs; it was about petty crime. They got caught up in the system. And the system did more harm than drugs. Once you’re in the system, the likelihood of getting out is very low.
GG: Do you feel like you were just incredibly lucky?
CH: It’s easy to think about it in terms of luck, but it’s not luck. I still participated in petty crimes just like the other kids. The difference was that I wouldn’t take risks where the odds were just not good.
Discipline from sports was one thing, but I also had some skills – social skills – particularly with the opposite sex. The women in my life, man, they really made sure that I didn’t stray too far. Apart from my girlfriends, I really had a lot of respect for my sisters and my grandmother. I could be one of the fellas, one of the guys, but I knew that in the end I had to answer to these women.
GG: After high school you joined the Air Force, serving first in Japan and then in England. Can you describe what it was like to return to your neighborhood, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in the ’80s?
CH: I was always happy to be back in the hood. I felt like I was a celebrity. But with the crack phenomenon, I was more unsure, given what people had said about crack. And I wasn’t sure who was now running the streets â€” I knew I wasn’t. I was out of practice.
One time when I came back home, I got into a fight. I didn’t know the rules, because I wanted to go get a gun and kill the guy. I had a career in England, but I was behaving like I didn’t. That was a real wake-up call. I had a real choice to make. Either you go get this gun, cap him, and deal with the consequences, or you get out and you understand that that’s not your life anymore.
GG: What do you want readers to take away from High Price?
CH: When we think about drug effects, I want people to understand that they have less to do with pharmacology and more to do with context: the history of the user, the dose of the drug, etc. That’s not to negate the role of pharmacology, but I do want people to understand the importance of context in trying to evaluate drug effects. We often talk about a drug as if it alone is causing all of these social harms. I want people to think about it in a more nuanced way.
I also want readers to re-think the way they view certain people who have been vilified by society. If they do that, they’ll see that we’ve been racist in our thinking in this country. We have not really owned up to it. People need to understand the difference between individual racism and institutional racism. Individual racism is not a big deal these days. You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who are outright racist. They don’t need to be, because our institutions are. I hope they understand that.
GG: How long did it take you to put together your book’s manuscript?
CH: It took me and a writer who was helping â€” who had to teach me how to write, basically â€” about three or four years. I had to learn how to write. Scientists don’t write to communicate; that’s not the goal. The goal is to write in order to not be wrong. It wasn’t until I was writing Chapter 16 of my book that I felt like, “Okay, I can do this. I got it.” But along the way, it was hard, man.
GG: Who came up with the title, “High Price”?
CH: My Ph.D adviser, Charlie Ksir, came up with the title. I wanted to call it “Trouble Man” from the Marvin Gaye song. My publisher said to me, “That would be great if this was 1973.” So they didn’t say “no,” they said “hell no.”
GG: Speaking of Marvin Gaye, it’s clear that you love music. In fact, you DJed with the guys who later became Run-D.M.C. When you’re in the lab, do you ever zone out and think about what your life would have been like if you’d stayed with them?
CH: In 1986, Run-D.M.C. released the album Raising Hell, the one with “Walk This Way” on it where they collaborated with Aerosmith. They did a tour of England that year, and I had to buy tickets to go see the guys I had performed with just a couple years earlier. It just felt like I blew it â€” I could have been there.
Run-D.M.C. performing “Walk This Way,” Â© 1986, 1999 Arista Records, Inc.
I thought about that for a long time, but now I see them differently. Run (Joseph Simmons) has his reality TV show now. I see him and Darryl McDaniels on TV and I think, I’m glad that’s not me. I’m glad I have the life that I have, because I can think. I will be relevant in terms of the public discourse on an issue that I care about. Good for them that they were the number one group for a while, but in the end, if we’re trying to change our world, I’m happy to be where I’m at.
Learn more about Carl Hart and his book, High Price, at www.highpricethebook.com.