Editor’s Note: Last week, Dr. Carl Hart, world-renowned neuroscientist and Associate Professor of Psychology at Columbia University—and the first African American to be tenured in the sciences at the school, participated in a townhall phone conversation with the The Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s most influential organization working to end the war on drugs and its resulting mass incarceration and criminalization. It was the latest in a series of calls designed to increase public understanding about the myths about drugs that drove the explosion of laws and sentencing schemes that cemented the United States as the world’s largest incarcerator.
Hart’s textbook, Drugs, Society, and Human Behavior, is widely used, and his award-winning, best-selling memoir, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, was broadly acclaimed by members of the science community. Regularly featured in the New York Times, on CNN and other outlets, Dr. Hart has been called to testify before Congress, and consult with presidents.
Below is an edited transcript of Dr. Hart’s conversation with journalist/activist asha bandele and participating callers from across the country on the concerns parents have about drugs and the laws that prosecute those who use them.
asha bandele: Carl, as the nation relaxes some of its laws on drug use and possession, how do we keep our children safe as it seems that are drugs both evermore available and potent?
Dr. Carl Hart: When people say that, they’re really talking about marijuana. But we’ve always known how to breed marijuana with high THC concentrations. There have always been people who’ve smoked really good marijuana while others smoked “garbage” weed. The internet allows us to share how to breed the really good marijuana and so some have argued that this puts kids at risk of smoking different marijuana than their parents smoked.…different being more dangerous. That’s an example of how we take a little information and the distort it to the point where we’re wrong. Think about it this way: we have some alcohol that’s a 151 percent proof. We also have Budweiser, which contains a small amount of alcohol. No one is talking about how this is now some new alcohol that’s posing more danger to your children. It’s just that people drink the alcohol that is 151 differently than they do beer.
One of the advantages of smoking a drug is that you detect the psychoactive effects more rapidly so when people use a stronger marijuana, they don’t smoke it in the same way they smoke whack weed. That’s just common sense and it doesn’t do young people any good when we miss an opportunity to help educate kids and say, “Please understand there’s something about the strength of the marijuana that you’re smoking. If you are a novice in terms of smoking marijuana, don’t start smoking like a champion. Start with lower doses.”
ab: I can imagine parents saying, “If I tell my child to learn how to smoke like a novice” it would be tantamount to telling him or her it’s okay to get high.
CH: All children will do things that you may not want them to. That’s part of parenting. The key becomes: do you give them information to help them stay safe and live another day even though it may be about behavior in which you’d like them to not engage in? As a parent, a scientist and educator what I know is that it’s always better to provide the education that will help keep my children—all people—safe even if I don’t want them to engage in the behavior. So this notion that giving sold information that keeps children safe somehow condones the behavior, is frankly, stupid—and dangerous.
ab: In your memoir, High Price, you say that you’re less concerned with your sons’ potential engagement with drugs than you are their engagement with police. Are you being hyperbolic when you make statements like that?
CH: As a scientist who studies drugs I’ve given thousands of doses of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine and methamphetamine to people who use them in order to carefully study their effects. These effects are not unpredictable as we were told in the 1980s, if you understand a few variables: the dose that was taken, the experience of the user, the conditions under which the drug was taken, where the drug was taken and the route of administration. You can predict them such that you’re more likely to enhance the positive effects of the drugs and minimize the negative effects of the drug, which means I can teach my children some lessons about drugs, the drugs young people are most likely to use—alcohol, marijuana and tobacco.
But I don’t know how to keep my children safe with the police because, particularly when it comes to Black folks, interactions with police are not predictable. When you have this sort of unpredictability versus predictability, that’s not a controversial statement that’s a smart statement and I would be remiss as a parent if I don’t make this understood to my children. Continue reading