Carl Hart: Meet the Columbia professor whose heroin use is forcing debate on drugs and criminality

Nii Ntreh Feb 22, 2021 at 11:00am

February 22, 2021 at 11:00 am | Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

February 22, 2021 at 11:00 am | Opinions & Features

Carl Hart of the Columbia University has for the last decade been at the forefront of the American academic pushback against the criminalization that stems from drug use. Photo Credit: Reframingaddiction.com

The Columbia professor of neuroscience and psychology, Carl Hart recognizes that our increasingly liberal world is still very conservative about the use of psychoactive substances, partly because the misinformation is louder than researched conclusions.

For about a decade, the 54-year-old father of three has been at the forefront of academia’s pushback against the criminalization of drug users as well as drug use. Hart has spoken on platforms and forums where his thoughts have been received as avant-garde opinions.

In an interview in 2015, Hart laid down the difficulty with speaking from a scientifically-informed basis to a crowd who are either unlearned or uninterested in learning about scientific evidence associated with drugs and drug use:

People who have never met me, I usually tell that I am a shoe salesperson because I don’t really wanna talk about drugs with people who have no sort of [academic] background [in studying drugs] or no real interest in this. It’s a hard thing because people have these sorts of ideas [and] what they think they know is actually wrong. For example, they think for a drug like crack-cocaine, those who use these illegal drugs are addicted whereas most are not. 80 to 90% of people who use these drugs will never become addicted,

Such is the weight of Hart’s claims that even though he is an acclaimed scientist, most people find his espousal of knowledge hard to take. But the reasons for the general audience’s skepticism and hesitation are not far-fetched. Drugs have had a bad reputation in the modern world since the United States started clamping down on cocaine in the 1910s. Nicotine in tobacco remains the only narcotic we are most at ease with because firms are allowed to cash in on the drug making it part of our everyday life.

In other interviews, Hart has spoken about the need to relook at the history of the criminalization of drugs. As he told Joe Rogan earlier this year, there are pharmacological reasons to be suspicious of drugs such as cocaine. However, such drugs were not criminalized for mental health reasons but rather as a result of racial and cultural stereotyping.

Hart’s argument has been found to be true at least in the case of the outlawing of marijuana or cannabis in the States. The 1930s saw radical anti-Black and Hispanic propaganda by the Harry J. Anslinger narcotics control administration in spite of the lack of scientific evidence to prosecute the case of the dangers of marijuana. The consequent war on drugs was also typically racial.

This is why Hart is using his own drug use as a point of reference to challenge what he believes are myths about the phenomenon. In a new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, Hart references his use of cocaine and heroin as necessary to maintain the “balance” of his life.

He writes: “I do not have a drug-use problem. Never have. Each day, I meet my parental, personal and professional responsibilities. I pay my taxes, serve as a volunteer in my community on a regular basis and contribute to the global community as an informed and engaged citizen. I am better for my drug use.”

Having confessed to using heroin and other narcotics for years, Hart is not the portrait of a man we have been told to expect for a “hard drug” user. Why? Hart believes that his image of sanity and responsibility is a surprise to us because he is living counterevidence that goes contrary to our intuition. For him, this should beg for further anti-establishment curiosity in the discourse on drugs.

But if his “success” does prompt further research and openness of minds, that would count as an academic gain. For coming out with his truth, Hart believes he has served an example to his children.

“I can live more honestly. I can look in the mirror. My children can have an example of what courage looks like in real-time, not in history. It’s possible I’ll get some flak from my university, my employers. Such is life,” he told The Guardian.

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