13.01.2021
Susanna Arcieri - Carl L. Hart

“Chasing liberty (and truth)” in the fields of drugs

Interview with Carl L. Hart

Issue 1/2021

With two different interviews, we asked some questions to Prof. Carl L. Hart, neuroscientist, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Columbia University, who has been studying the effects of different types of drugs on the human brain for decades.

And it does this from a very particular perspective, unconventional and privileged at the same time. In fact, if one the one hand Hart is the first tenured African American professor of sciences at Columbia University, with an endless curriculum that includes three different Ph.D. and a long list of articles published in the most prestigious international scientific journals, he is also a drug user, a revolutionary, one who many consider an “uncomfortable” scientist because of the profound criticism he has been addressing his political class for decades, strongly denouncing the stigma and marginalization against drug users, especially if belonging racial minorities.

With the weapons of openness and a passion for truth and justice, combined with a deep knowledge of data and scientific evidence, as well as on the basis of his own personal experience as an African American consumer and citizen with a past of poverty and discrimination, Hart poses in serious discussion what, according to common opinion, is “the truth about drugs“.

In both interviews granted to DPU (a written opinion and a video conversation) Hart dwells at length on the main scientific evidences that show the real consequences of drugs on the human brain, on the correct definition of the concept of “addiction” and on the analysis of the deeper causes (social, political, cultural and environmental) underlying the criminalization of drug use; thus painting, stroke after stroke, the picture of another, surprising truth.

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Also watch the video of the conversation with Carl Hart, “The whole truth sbout drugs“, published in this Journal on January 13, 2021.
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«The greatest dangers from drugs flow from their being illegal». This is what we read in the presentation of your forthcoming book, Drug Use for Grown-ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear.

Can you tell us more about this statement? Does it mean, in particular, that drugs are not dangerous by themselves?

More in particular, from your perspective as a Neuroscientist, what can you tell us about the correlation “drug-violent behaviors” we often hear about? Does this correlation make sense scientifically (and statistically) speaking?

Over my 25-year career, I have discovered that most drug-use scenarios cause little or no harm and that some responsible drug-use scenarios are actually beneficial for human health and functioning.

Even “recreational” drugs can and do improve day-to-day living. Several large research studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption, for example, is associated with decreased risk of stroke and heart disease, the top killers in the United States each year.  A number of beneficial effects have been observed with other drugs as well, including MDMA and opioids.

From my own experience – the combination of my scientific work and my personal drug use, I have learned that recreational drugs can be used safely to enhance many vital human activities.

But because many drugs are illegal, millions of people, mainly poor people, are arrested for possessing and selling drugs. This, of course, can cause tremendous harms to people’s health and lives.

Over my 25-year career, I have discovered that most drug-use scenarios cause little or no harm and that some responsible drug-use scenarios are actually beneficial for human health and functioning

Still, I recognize that there is a public perception that some drugs cause its users to become aggressive, combative and even acquire superhuman strength.

The police often make this assertion about methamphetamine and phencyclidine, a.k.a. P.C.P. or “angel dust”.

The fact is that there is no empirical evidence to support this unsubstantiated notion.

I recognize that there is a public perception that some drugs cause its users to become aggressive, combative and even acquire superhuman strength […]. The fact is that there is no empirical evidence to support this unsubstantiated notion

It seems to us, actually, that the psychological attitude towards drugs and towards the damage they can cause to health is very far from the scientific evidence you describe in your books. Is that so?

Can you give us some striking examples of this difference of views? In your opinion, why is it so difficult for some people to accept some science breakthroughs on drugs?

Politicians and other authorities often scapegoat drugs in order to avoid addressing complex social problems – e.g., high unemployment, inadequate life-sustaining jobs, poor education.

Politicians know that it’s far more politically expedient to offer what looks like immediate solutions to trumped-up drug crises, such as hiring more cops, than it is to invest in appropriate social policies whose benefits may not be seen for several years after the election cycle.

In the U.S., politicians don’t even follow the science when it comes to climate change or COVID-19, so it’s not surprising that they don’t accept the science on drugs. We live in a culture where it’s cool, and even courageous, to be ignorant and uninformed. This ethos causes me a great deal of sadness.

In the U.S., politicians don’t even follow the science when it comes to climate change or COVID-19, so it’s not surprising that they don’t accept the science on drugs. We live in a culture where it’s cool, and even courageous, to be ignorant and uninformed

In a recent article published on The New York Times, you talked about drugs and racial discrimination in connection with Floyd’s murder.

How is the cultural climate today in the USA, within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement? Has George Floyd’s story led to any stance to combat the use of prison as an instrument of racial segregation?

What prospects do you see on the horizon for the African-American accused of crimes?

This is a difficult question, because the racist events of 2020 – and our government’s response to them – has shown with brutal clarity that Black life in the US is valued less than White life.

I knew that life wasn’t necessary fair, but this year has made it unequivocally clear that it is particularly not fair for Black citizens and many of our white brothers and sisters could care less.

I don’t expect this situation to change anytime soon. Nevertheless, I continue to work for justice in the US but also look forward to the day when I will call another country “home”.

I knew that life wasn’t necessary fair, but this year has made it unequivocally clear that it is particularly not fair for Black citizens and many of our white brothers and sisters could care less

In Italy, as you know, we are facing a serious prison overcrowding crisis, and about a third of inmates are charged with (or condemned for) drug offences, and in your Country is basically the same.

In this framework, what is your position on anti-prohibitionism/liberalizazion of drugs? What are, according to your studies, the main social impact (positive or negative) of a more permissive approach to drug consumption?

My position is simple and clear: no benevolent government should forbid autonomous adults from altering their consciousness, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.

Imagine if your government prevented you from exercising to develop your strength or stamina. It’s silly, just as silly as it is for that government to prevent you from exploring your consciousness.

Credits to Unsplash.com

In the title of your book, you use the phrase «chasing liberty». Do you think that drug users are always “free” to choose whether to take (continue taking) drugs?

More specifically, what do you think about the line of research according to which substance addiction is a full-fledged brain disease and, in particular, a sort of «disease of free will»[1]?

To be clear, there is no solid evidence that human recreational drug use causes brain damage; nor is there credible evidence showing that addiction is caused by a brain abnormality.

I have looked for this evidence for more than 20 years and have found none.

The phrase “chasing liberty” is homage to our Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the US. The Declaration asserts that each of us is endowed with certain “unalienable Rights”, including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, and that governments are created for the purpose of protecting these rights.

Thus, in my view, the use of drugs in the pursuit of happiness is an act that the government is obliged to safeguard. It has failed.

And so I continue my chase for liberty.

In my view, the use of drugs in the pursuit of happiness is an act that the government is obliged to safeguard. It has failed. And so I continue my chase for liberty

In the presentation of the book, we also read that: «When used responsibly, drugs can powerfully enrich and enhance our lives».

What do you mean by that?

Drugs can enhance pleasure, openness, intimacy, energy, sexual satisfaction, and a range of other experiences normal people routinely seek.

Thus, there will always be a demand for them or any commodity that enhances joy and mitigates human suffering.

 

Talking about the possible ways to face the many problems related to the current drug policy (in the USA, but not ony) and to the general tendency to “demonize” drug consumption and drug users you say that: «This is about education».

How can we promote a cultural shift that could open the doors to a more realistic and hence scientifically sound drug policy?

Everyone who studies the direct effects of recreational drugs in people knows that recreational drug effects are overwhelmingly positive. But most have remained practically silent about this fact.

Some are cowards, others receive loads of grant funding to show that drugs are bad. We would be waiting forever if our liberation was dependent upon the drug scientist.

Everyone who studies the direct effects of recreational drugs in people knows that recreational drug effects are overwhelmingly positive. But most have remained practically silent about this fact […]. We would be waiting forever if our liberation was dependent upon the drug scientist

Therefore, I recommend that respectable middle-class drug users stop concealing their use, “get out of the closet”. If more people followed this advice, it would be extremely difficult to pigeonhole all users as only irresponsible, troubled members of our society.

Middle-class drug users need to get out of the closet, as an act of civil disobedience. This type of massive, blatant disregard for laws that prohibit adult drug use would highlight the ruthlessly unjust drug schemes that are so frequently used against the poor and politically weak.

Middle-class drug users need to get out of the closet, as an act of civil disobedience. This type of massive, blatant disregard for laws that prohibit adult drug use would highlight the ruthlessly unjust drug schemes that are so frequently used against the poor and politically weak

We are curious to know what is the prevailing attitude towards your position on drugs within the scientific community (If you lived in Italy, you would undoubtedly be a “politically inconvenient” person…)

“Politically inconvenient”. That’s funny. But it’s true. In the US, we avoid this type of honesty or truthfulness.

Instead, I might be referred to as someone who holds a “minority” or “unpopular” point of view. But I like “politically inconvenient” much better, because it’s honest.

Please understand, however, that I am a Black American, which means I have been “politically inconvenient” for my entire life that spans more than five decades.

So, I have never been concerned about the dominant culture’s view of me, nor am I concerned about what the scientific community thinks of me.

The thing that concerns me most is that I am an honest man, an honest human, who fights for justice on behalf of the “politically inconvenient”.

I am a Black American, which means I have been “politically inconvenient” for my entire life that spans more than five decades. So, I have never been concerned about the dominant culture’s view of me, nor am I concerned about what the scientific community thinks of me. The thing that concerns me most is that I am an honest man, an honest human, who fights for justice on behalf of the “politically inconvenient”

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[1] See, for ex., N. Volkow, Addiction Is a Disease of Free Will, NIDA, 2015, June 12, cited in S. Arcieri, Is addiction a brain disease?, in this journal, September 2, 2020.

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