The famed neuroscientist and author of ‘Drug Use For Grown-ups’ speaks on America’s shifting stance toward substances, from law enforcement to the psychedelic renaissance
Last year, Dr. Carl Hart, the renowned neuroscientist and chair of psychology at Columbia University, released a book titled Drug Use for Grown-Ups. It’s an accessible blend of research and partially-fragmented autobiography: Hart chronicles his own drug use, and the scientific evidence that shifted his view of psychoactive substances, from societal pollutants to pharmacological tools of enjoyment and insight.
In the media, though, the book was oftentimes trivialized, reduced to a self-admission of drug use. A Complex headline read: “Columbia Professor Carl Hart Admitted to Using Heroin Every Day in New Book.” During an interview on The Breakfast Club radio show—where Hart was visibly frustrated by a cyclical and obstinate series of questions—the combative Charlamagne tha God asked if he was “going through withdrawals.”
The primary thesis of Hart’s book was dismissed by the media, which favored, rather, the salacious details of his drug use—notably his heroin use, with all its cultural associations.
Yet, as many interviewers—and anyone looking closely—quickly discovered, Hart is not a drug addict; he is a prestigious professor, a prolific researcher with over a hundred peer-reviewed publications, a dedicated social advocate, and a responsible drug user. He’s unequivocally committed to freedom and justice, and seeks to pursue those ideals to their logical limits. For Hart, this includes the freedom to ingest whatever psychoactive substance adults may choose. He recognizes that, in America, a country with a paternalistic posture toward drug policy, there is an implicit horror surrounding chemically-induced pleasure—and that it is this fear, along with the racialization of drug use, that inhibits true freedom. Freedom remains an ideal to be endlessly articulated and praised, but never enacted, or even offered.
Teddy Duncan: For those who may not be familiar with your work: How would you describe your position on the legality of substances, and drug consumption in general?
Dr. Carl Hart: It’s very simple. Our Declaration of Independence says that we have these three birthrights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, with the caveat of not harming other people. People using psychoactive substances—that’s part of their liberty. It’s part of their pursuit of happiness. My position is that we should be consistent with our promise. That means that people should be allowed to engage in substance use, just like they do with alcohol, and just like they do with caffeine. Our government regulates these things to make sure people are confident that what they’re taking is not tainted or adulterated.
Teddy: An appeal to basic freedom is a foundational element of your argument in Drug Use for Grown-Ups. Why do you think that America—a place that ostensibly prides itself on individualism, freedom, and noninterference in citizens’ personal lives—has such a punitive approach towards drugs?
Carl: We have that approach towards some drugs; we don’t take a punitive approach toward alcohol. There is a lot of money in banning the drugs [that we do]. It helps us to justify large police forces; it helps us to justify large prisons; and it justifies those budgets. That is exactly what the war on drugs does. It also plays an important role in our society, in terms of allowing us to know who to vilify.
“We made it okay—in fact, we paid some countries—to go after people for drugs: drug sales, drug use. We made it acceptable for countries to violate people’s basic human rights.”
Teddy: Your overarching critique transcends pharmacology—it is also a social critique. You specifically claim that certain social conditions are more likely to engender addiction. What are these conditions, and how could legislation or cultural change combat them?
Carl: We have to understand that drug addiction has almost nothing to do with drugs. If people are struggling with lack of skills, lack of practice being responsible, lack of education, lack of gainful employment—all of those things increase the likelihood of problems. If there’s a drug in the mix, why are you surprised that they’ll have a problem with that, too?
The problem is that we act as if the drug itself is the problem, without looking at the entire situation, or the conditions under which the person is operating. When you have large numbers of people who are uneducated, undereducated, unemployed, underemployed, you keep unrealistic expectations of them. You make sure they don’t have healthcare, and pit various people and groups against each other. Don’t blame the drugs. Blame your societies.
Teddy: There is a term that you sometimes invoke that is related to race: psychedelic exceptionalism. Could you describe this idea?
Carl: Many of the writers in the United States, nowadays, are into psychedelics. They’re talking about what great drugs they are, and how they have these great experiences. Which is fine. That’s cool. But what many of them do is vilify other substances and other users. The concern is that these writers see psychedelics as being special. The truth is that they’re just psychoactive substances—just like any other substance. We could think about MDMA: MDMA is an amphetamine, but they tend to put it in the psychedelic category. And PCP is certainly a psychedelic, but they tend not to include that. They pick and choose for their own convenience. The concern is that these people, who are promoting psychedelic exceptionalism, aren’t objective. They’re not looking at drugs as just that—drugs.
Teddy: It is generally accepted that we’re in a ‘psychedelic renaissance,’ with less restrictive federal laws generating new trials and burgeoning research. In some instances, such as with Denver’s decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms, this has already resulted in more legal permissiveness towards substances. Do you think psychedelic exceptionalism is at play here?
Carl: Yeah, of course. I mean, it’s a good thing. All substances should be treated like that. But we’re having movement in places like Denver because of psychedelic exceptionalism. Let’s be clear: We’re having this movement because the people who are writing about psychedelics in this positive way are typically middle- to upper-class white folks. And as a result, they get to determine what’s cool and what’s not for society, and what is acceptable and what is not. That’s the bottom line.
Teddy: Surveying the current landscape, do you see any potential overlap with legalization of other substances, or do you think psychedelics are leaving other drugs behind at this juncture?
Carl: They’re leaving other drugs behind intentionally. People who do psychedelics don’t want to be classified as the same as people who do crack cocaine or heroin. They don’t want to be in the same category, when in fact they are. They’re all seeking the same thing; they’re altering their consciousness.
Teddy: Are opiates—in terms of physiological dependence and withdrawal—pharmacologically or chemically distinct from other substances? Is there something ‘special’ about opiate addiction?
Carl: With opioid addiction, you’re more likely to experience physical dependence than you are with something like amphetamines or cocaine. That much is true. Yet, the most dangerous drug, which we commonly use, is alcohol. You can die from alcohol withdrawal. Healthy people can’t die from opioid withdrawal. It might be unpleasant, but it’s certainly not life-threatening. I think opioid withdrawal and physical dependence have been traumatized in the popular press, so much so that people think everybody who does an opioid is going to experience withdrawals and die—and that’s simply not true. There’s been a lot of misinformation around opioid physical dependence, and that certainly drives a lot of what we think.
Teddy: You’re outspoken about Brittany Griner’s incarceration in Russia. You’ve been sending out a tweet each day, commenting on her circumstances. You’ve also implicated US drug policy as indirectly contributing to Griner’s current situation.
How do you think that US drug laws have informed global drug policies, such as those in Russia that sentenced Griner to nine years for possession of cannabis oil?
“People who do psychedelics don’t want to be classified as the same as people who do crack cocaine or heroin. They don’t want to be in the same category, when in fact they are. They’re all seeking the same thing; they’re altering their consciousness.”
Carl: We made it okay—in fact, we paid some countries—to go after people for drugs: drug sales, drug use. We made it acceptable for countries to violate people’s basic human rights. We were the main players in that regard, and we still are. Brittany’s is just a case of the chickens coming home to roost. If you look at your passport, for example, the only crime that’s mentioned by name is drug trafficking or drug possession. Not murder, not assault, not any of those things. That’s how much we have elevated [the issue of] drugs in our country. The war on drugs is a jobs program, where we create [DEA and police force positions] for people who are less well-educated.
Teddy: Would you say that the global war on drugs originates in the US?
Teddy: Drug Use for Grown-Ups is a popular book, and many were receptive to its content. Yet some in the media, regardless of political affiliation, were openly antagonistic—not only towards the book’s message, but also towards you as a recreational drug user. Why do you think this was the case?
Carl: Well, the ability to use certain drugs to vilify people is an important function in a society, and here I am to say that you shouldn’t vilify people for what they choose to put in their bodies. So now you can’t call someone a crackhead and simply dismiss them. You can’t say that somebody uses heroin, therefore they’re a bad person, and that’s it. Now you have to actually look beyond what that person chooses to put in their body, and see whether or not they’re a decent person. I’m taking away that easy vilification. People fight hard when someone is coming along, taking away this important tool.
Teddy: Absolutely. You could see the cognitive dissonance in some people—like with The Breakfast Club interview. They were for legalization, but antagonistic toward you at the same time. It was a strange, unexpected dynamic.
Carl: Yeah. They weren’t for legalization; they confused decriminalization with legalization. That’s the problem, because it forces—for example—Democrats to actually do something. I’ve been a Democrat my whole life, and now people like me are criticizing them for lip service and not actually doing anything. They’re all saying that drug laws are racist, but it’s like, Okay, that means you have to look at your participation in the creation of those laws. That’s hard for people.
Teddy: An open-ended question to finish off this insightful interview: Are you hopeful for the future? Do you think that Americans will gain greater freedom in upcoming years?
Carl: I’m hopeful for the future, but that future could be a long way off. I don’t think Americans know what freedom is. I mean, how many times have you turned on the TV or something, and gone through the channels, and some idiot is talking about how we are the freest country in the world and the greatest country in the world, and the motherfucker never been anywhere else besides the US? That’s the problem: They don’t know what freedom is. And they don’t know our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence. Because if they really knew, they would not be settling for what they’ve settled for. Until we start teaching the Declaration of Independence to adults and not to children, we’re not gonna have freedom. When I think about people’s rights and people’s liberties—that’s why I’m here, to protect them, whether I agree with them or disagree.