Dr. Carl Hart, a neuroscientist on the Columbia University faculty, is the most audaciously radical thinker in the drug-policy-reform field, and the bravest. His new book was mildly praised the New York Times Book Review January 17 by Casey Schwartz. This is how she summarized one of his key points: “Hart argues the drug war has in fact succeeded, not because it has reduced illegal drug use in the United States (it hasn’t), but because it has boosted prison and policing budgets, its true, if unstated, purpose.”
My heart leaped up as if I'd beheld a rainbow.
The War on Drugs is not a Failure is a point a few under-the-radar journalists have been trying to make for years; it took Carl Hart to make it in the New York Times. (No news achieves “critical mass” in the US until it appears in the Times, Alex Cockburn observed. Even in this twittery era, it's still the elite's newspaper of record.)
In 2010, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, explicitly and forcefully urged his followers to always refer to the War on Drugs as a failure. (DPA would pay hundreds of activists to attend an annual conference at which Nadelmann would lay out the party line.) Though supposedly a liberal, Nadelmann was very strict about reformers “staying on message.” And because almost all activists and politicians craved some of the funding he doled out on behalf of George Soros (about $6 million annually), many made a mantra of “the failed war on drugs” in their speeches and blog posts. You can Google that phrase to see how successful Nadelmann's PR campaign has been.
Gone are the days when a hack writer could request and get review copies from book publishers. Begrudgingly, I paid online for “Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear” (Penguin, $28). Before it arrived, I emailed the Review a letter I knew they wouldn't run:
In “Drug Use for Grown-Ups,” I learn from Casey Schwartz’s review, Carl Hart asks: what’s wrong with being a regular heroin user?
Her review is favorable, except for: “Hart’s writing can turn from passionate and moral to what feels like score-settling, undercutting the tenor of his narrative.”
I ask: what’s wrong with score-settling?
Professor Hart, 54, has dreadlocks and looks like a rock star. He was raised by his mother and her mother in the Black ghetto of Miami. He has blood relatives in prison. His book is dedicated “For Parker and countless other real niggers—who shielded me from the hit, making it possible for a hood counterfeit to become mainstream legit.” He made his getaway by enlisting in the Air Force. He got a BA from the University of Maryland and a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Wyoming. Columbia hired him as an associate professor of psychology in 1999 and granted him tenure with alacrity. All this time he considered illicit drug use harmful to the users and devastating for the Black community. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) gave him millions in grant money. His own research findings and personal experience would lead him to reconsider.
Hart's own use of drugs does not seem to have impaired his ability to write clearly. (He'd probably say it's been helpful.) In the prologue he quotes Jefferson and adds, “I recognize that Thomas Jefferson and other revered historical figures enslaved Black people. This was reprehensible even during their time. But the cruel hypocrisy of these individuals' actions does not negate the noble ideals and vision articulated in their writings.”
The Declaration of Independence defines “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” as the inalienable rights of US Americans. So why, Hart asks, “Is our government arresting hundreds of thousands of Americans each year for using drugs, for pursuing pleasure, for seeking happiness?” It's the possibility of addiction that provides the rationale for prohibiton. Hart explains:
“Often, the conversation about recreational drug use is hijacked by peddlers of pathology as if addiction is inevitable for everyone who takes drugs. It is not. 70% or more of drug users – whether they use alcohol, cocaine, prescription medications, or other drugs – do not meet the criteria for a drug addiction. Indeed, researchershows repeatedly that such issues affect only 10 to 30 percent of those who use even the most stigmatize drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine. This observation highlights two important points. The first is society's flagrant, disproportionate focus on addiction when discussing drugs. Addiction represents a minority of drug affects, but it receives almost all the attention, certainly the media attention... Imagine if you were interested in learning more about cars or driving and could only find information about car crashes or information about how to repair a car after a crash. That would be ridiculous.”
It's hardly surprising that reviews of “Drug Use for Grown-Ups” focus on Hart's first-person revelations. “I am now entering my fifth year as a regular heroin user,” he writes. “I do not have a drug problem. Never have. Each day, I meet my parental personal and professional responsibilities. I pay my taxes, serve as a volunteer in my community on a regular basis, and contribute to the global community as an informed and engaged citizen.”
(To be continued…)