Dr. Carl Hart is a busy man.
In addition to his duties as Ziff Professor at Columbia University, Hart also speaks publicly and loudly about any number of drug issues. Only recently, he was featured as an expert in the excellent new Netflix documentary “Crack: Cocaine, Corruption, and Conspiracy.” As a Black man in America, a world-class researcher, and a self-professed drug user functioning at the highest levels of society, Hart makes one hell of a compelling case.
Now, he’s formatted that argument into a newly published book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear (Penguin Press, $28). As part of a pandemic-friendly promotional tour to promote his new release, Hart joined former deputy federal public defender and current University of San Francisco School of Law professor Lara Bazelon for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on everything from the genesis of addiction to a personal anecdote about using MDMA to cope with personal trauma.
Presented as part of San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures series, the hour-long chat kicked off with a fitting introduction from Bazelon.
“Dr. Hart’s research has led him to conclude that not only was the war on drugs a misbegotten and racist failure,” she began, “but that it was based on a faulty premise. Basically, he believes that drugs — and when I say drugs, I mean cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, opiates — have mainly positive effects and that he knows this not only from his research but from his personal experience because he’s used these drugs himself in the pursuit of relaxation, happiness, and also relief from living with the racism that comes with being a Black man in America.”
One of topics the two discussed early on was why Hart took so long to “come out of the drug closet” as he puts it in his book.
“I was a coward,” he said. “It took me a long time to grow up.”
What changed for him was a realization that the people society identifies and vilifies as drug were doing exactly the same thing as Hart and millions of other Americans. He also recalled an experience (also documented in his book) in 2016, when he consumed some 2C-I and subsequently listened to the Nina Simone song “Why (The King of Love is Dead)” over and over again.
“It got me to thinking about standing up for what you believe in,” Hart said, “and what liberty meant. The pursuit of happiness. I realized that this isn’t a war on drugs. This is a war on us.”
A point central to Hart’s underlying thesis that responsible drug use by adults should be encouraged stems from the history — and “logic” behind — America’s drug laws themselves. As he pointed out to Bazelon, substances like cocaine (which was once so popular it formed the main ingredient in Coca-Cola) and opium weren’t initially banned due to any empirical medical data, but rather as a workaround to oppress unwanted minority populations.
“History tells us that cocaine was banned because black folks had access to cocaine,” he said. “In San Francisco, they were upset with the Chinese so they banned opium. Not because of pharmacological reasons, but because of good old American racism and that continues to this day.”
Hart makes salient points about the inarguable ties between U.S. drug policy and subsequent rates of mass incarceration as well as the systemic poverty still experienced by many Black and brown communities as a result of decades of increased law enforcement presence. However, his argument in favor of drugs extends beyond simply seeing punitive laws prohibiting them abolished.
Instead, Hart’s research has found that most of the heroin users he’s worked with are not the Hollywood cliché made popular in films like “Trainspotting” and “Requiem for a Dream” but functioning, regular people. Ditto for cocaine, methamphetamines – you name it – but Hart was also careful to clarify that this thesis is founded on the idea that adults would have access to the real compounds these terms have come to describe.
“One of the main reasons people are dying is because they’re getting contaminated drugs,” he explained. “They don’t know what’s in their street drugs but if we legally regulate the market, one of the things we do is increase the quality control.”
Though arguably every page of “Drug Use for Grown-Ups” qualifies as fascinating, an admission from Hart about his own initial motivations for getting into the field is a revealing glimpse into the way biases seeps into all of us, regardless of how vigilante we may be.
“I’ve been studying drugs for 30 years,” Hart said, “but I got into it to try and ‘solve’ the drug issue because I assumed drugs were at the core of my community’s issues. Issues like unemployment, rates of violence, poor education. I thought by curing drug addiction, you could cure those problems. But what I learned over the year is, hold up, the problems were there long before any drugs we’re talking about, whether it’s crack or heroin.”
As Hart explained, he sees drugs as a strawman for society’s true issues. Thus, if someone is depressed or anxious, they may exacerbate that condition (or improve it!) by consuming drugs, but it is not the substance that led to their condition. In fact, as Hart detailed, what’s causing people to turn to drugs is the very system put in place to supposedly make everyone safer.
Irony seems like too kind a word to describe the following contrast: though many drugs are more prevalent in white, affluent communities, almost the entirety of law enforcement efforts under America’s drug war have been focused on Black and brown communities.
Towards the program’s close, Hart eloquently summarized what may be seen as the central thesis of his new book.
“We blame drugs for everything that society does not want to deal with and that may be a wet dream for politicians, but for the rest of us, we’re suffering as a result.”
If you missed the show, you’re in luck! City Arts & Lectures will be rebroadcasting an audio version of this program, in partnership with KQED, at the following times: Feb. 7 at 1pm, Feb. 9 at 8pm, Feb. 10 at 1am. All times PT. To listen, tune in locally to KQED 88.5FM or visit KQED.org.