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.
ab: What are the conversations about drugs like in your home? How aligned are they with the way young people are taught about drugs in school and media campaigns?
CH: Most of the stuff that parades as drug education in this country is just rubbish with no foundation in evidence. With my children, I talk about the variables that are important in terms of predicting and understanding drug effects. But number one is concern is with the police. I tell them directly: “Don’t use drugs in situations or in places where you’re more likely to be caught by the police. I would much prefer you use drugs in my home or near me so I can protect you.”
I’ve explained that if they’re inexperienced don’t use large doses of drugs. One has to become tolerant to the effects of drugs because tolerance protects people from the harmful effects that may occur related to drugs. And make sure you actually know something about the effect of the drug you’re taking. If you’re going to smoke marijuana one of the things that’s likely to happen to inexperienced users is they become anxious. But the thing is this: don’t worry, it wears off. People get in trouble because, not understanding the effect of the drug, they do something stupid. So understand something about the positive effects as well as the potential negative effects of the drug you’re using. And make sure that wherever you’re using drugs, you’re using it in a comfortable, safe environment that’s less likely to provoke anxiety.
Finally, make sure you understand something about route of administration. For example, if you’re smoking marijuana the onset of the effects will occur within five or 10 minutes whereas if you’re using an edible you may not feel the effects for 60 or 90 minutes after you’ve taken the drug. That means don’t continue to put loads of the edible in your gut. If you do, you increase the likelihood of having an awful experience; including thinking you’re going to die.
ab: Carl, we’re both Black parents, and its our children who are most often the image of the perceived drug problem in America. So many of us believed the media hysteria that elevated the role drugs like crack played in the destruction of our communities while under-reporting the impact of what the loss of social safety nets played. And we supported laws that contributed to mass incarceration and mass criminalization of our own people. What would you say to us about what we need to do now that we know better?
CH: I don’t know if many of us know better because I still hear people making incredibly ignorant statements about drugs. For those people I just hope they read work like High Price. It’s not a crime to make a mistake, in fact it’s human. I certainly have made mistakes. The thing now is for us to own our mistakes and try to get better. So those people who were complicit in passing those awful laws because they misunderstood what were the real problems in our communities, just own it and say, “Now I have new information, better information and I’m going to try my best to make it right.”
DR. STANTON PEELE: One of the most fascinating things you talk about is the fact that some of the drugs that we fear the most—like meth—have a close chemical resemblance to drugs we readily give to children like Adderall. But at the same time you say having young people use drugs is ill-advised. How do we address this seeming contradiction?
CH: We’ve done studies comparing the active ingredient in Adderall Amphetamine to methamphetamine under double blind conditions and seen that they’re essentially the same drug. So with kids essentially being prescribed methamphetamine, I’d say as is the case with any sort of medical condition, one has to weigh the risk/benefit ratio. Do the benefits from giving a drug like methamphetamine to children outweigh costs? If the risk benefit ratio is favorable I’m all for that child being administered that drug to help control their symptoms.
JAMILAH LEMIEUX: What do you think it’s going to take to have a cultural paradigm shift so Black people lose the attitude that being a pot smoker means that you’re lazy, and for us to acknowledge publicly how many of those we look up to are regular if not avid marijuana smokers?
CH: In every talk I give, I try and make sure I point out that Brother Barack Obama smoked marijuana and Clinton admitted to smoking, albeit begrudgingly and that he did not inhale. When Barack Obama was asked about inhaling, he said, “That was the point.” I try to make it clear to people that people who we respect smoked marijuana and they are successful, paying their taxes, taking care of their families, making contributions to this society. We only see this limited view of folks who use drugs and it’s always those who are not respected and who are screwing up. But they actually do not represent the majority of users.
But there’s another thing in operation here in the Black community: the politics of respectability, where we want to show white people that we are good and deserving, that are not the “bad negroes. “ So we need people who are respectable, I hate that term but people who are doing well in society who are responsible to come out of the closet and say, “Me too”.
SCOTT CECIL: Street level drug dealers don’t card and cartels don’t pay taxes—isn’t legalization a superior solution to decriminalization both in terms of public policy and keeping drugs out of the hands of young adults and children?
CH: With decriminalization, we’d treat most drug possession like we treat traffic violations. People wouldn’t go to jail but they might receive a fine for possession. With legalization we’d regulate it just like alcohol and like we do with marijuana in Colorado, Alaska, Washington, Oregon and in the District of Columbia. In High Price I argued that we should decriminalize all drugs in the way they’ve done in Portugal and the Czech Republic because they are they’re doing better than us in all relative social indicators. But now I’m more in favor of legalization—although I don’t hinge my argument on the cartels and underground markets, because in any society with disparities, you’re going to have people who will engage in deviant behaviors and underground economies.
I’m in favor of legalization because drugs themselves pose less danger to our children and our society than do the adulterants that people cut drugs with. For example, street cocaine is cut largely with levamisole, an animal de-wormer that decreases white blood cells rendering us less able to deal with infections and in some cases it could be deadly. Decriminalization doesn’t address that which is why I’m in favor of legalization. It decreases the likelihood of people being harmed by some adulterant when they simply wanted to get high and not die.
RUSS BELVILLE: What are some of the myths on the drug reformer side that we maybe ought to put into check?
CH: Drug reformers get seduced by politicians who co-opt our language, but who make no meaningful change. And when we don’t hold politicians accountable, we contribute to harm. For example, the current administration said something like “We won’t be having a war on drugs anymore.” People thought they were progressive. Of course they really haven’t been. For example, in 2010 President Obama signed into law the 100:1 sentencing disparity in punishing crack and powder cocaine users and sellers. Crack cocaine was punished a 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine before 2010 but the legislation decreased the disparity from a 100:1 to 18:1. That’s still bad and equally inconsistent with the science. If we punish at all, it should be one-to-one. But as a result of the new law, we progressives didn’t put more pressure on the politicians.
Now, as we are liberalizing marijuana laws around the country and people are slapping themselves on the back, what’s also true is that we are punishing opiate and heroin violations more harshly than ever. And we’re “falling for the okie doke” in believing we have this sort of heroin epidemic, which doesn’t hold true when you actually look at the numbers. This is the same type of hysteria that happened in the 80s around crack. But my point is that as we’re excited about marijuana we forget all these other issues. Drug reformers need to be hyper-vigilant. I understand that when you’ve been oppressed so long, so thirty for truth, that when someone comes along and gives you a sip of water you think that they’re the savior. But in that water there may be cyanide.
To learn more about Dr. Hart, his research and writings, please visit: www.drcarlhart.com.