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Carl Hart

Interview: Dr. Carl Hart Breaks Down The Drug War In Drug Use For Grown-Ups

In this special feature, São Paulo-based Cannabis Health writer Gabriel Leão interviews leading American psychologist, drug researcher, and author Dr. Carl Hart.

In the book Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear (Penguin Press, 2021) Dr. Carl Hart, 54, speaks about the effects of recreational drugs on the human body and mind in a blunt way, using scientific data.

The award-winning Dr. Carl Hart is a Ziff Professor at Columbia University and former chair of the Department of Psychology. He doesn’t shy away from his own drug use and the balance of his personal and professional life.

In a Skype interview with Cannabis Health, Dr. Carl Hart shed light on the dreaded racial prejudice that exists in drug use, its demonization caused by the so-called war on drugs, while also discussing how his own coming-of-age has affected his career as a scientist, and the changes he has experienced in his views. The neuroscientist is one of the world’s leading voices when it comes to the ongoing drug debate.

Cannabis Health: In Drug Use for Grown-Ups, you discuss how the criminalization and demonization of drug use, and not just drugs themselves, have been painted as America’s enemy number one. One of the pivotal moments of the so-called Drug War was when former first lady Nancy Reagan started the “just say no” campaign. What were the real effects of her campaign? 

Dr. Carl Hart: I think that campaign is more for people who were looking back in history… it was just a public relations campaign more than anything. Nobody really took her seriously. Like other first ladies, no one really listens to them.  

Cannabis Health: In your early research you were out to find the link between drug use and bad outcomes which were funded by a well-equipped arm of the American war on drugs. What were your first discoveries and how did you process them?

Dr. Carl Hart: Well, that is a difficult question. I made many discoveries along with other scientists. For example, we tended to ignore any beneficial effects of drugs and we tended to highlight the negative effects of drugs. I think that is the real important story here. 

We know that the majority of effects associated with drugs, of these drugs, are positive. But that is not what we reported in the literature. In the literature we tend to emphasize the negative effects, and I was just like other scientists in doing that sort of thing and overemphasizing the negatives, and minimizing the positives.

Cannabis Health: Can you explain the racial connection in the drug war, in particular considering Black and Brown people? How does this affect their safety and security in America?

Dr. Carl Hart: So, when we think about the racial aspect of this thing we call “the drug war,” we are simply talking about how we enforce our drug laws in the U.S. as well as in [countries like] Brazil. One of the things that I think we have noticed—everyone has noticed—is that there is a disproportionally and large number of Black and Brown people, people of African-descent who are arrested for drug-related charges even though they don’t make up the majority of the users.

So, when you start to see that happening—a great proportion of the people being arrested are from African descent and they don’t represent the greatest number of users nor sellers —then you start to realize that there is some selective bias, and racial discrimination going on in the enforcement of drug laws. That happens not only in the U.S., but also in Brazil. It also happens in other countries where poor people are targeted and they happen to be racially different, they just may be poor and less well-educated. Drug laws are enforced in a way that poor people with little social capital are the ones who are going to pay the price. 


Carl Hart
Dr. Carl Hart’s Book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear

Cannabis Health: Do you believe Indigenous peoples are also affected by these side effects?

Dr. Carl Hart: Yes, particularly if those Indigenous peoples are vilified in a society. We see this in the U.S. with our native American population. They certainly see it in Canada with First Nations populations. The same [is happening] in Brazil. People with limited social capital will pay the price when it comes to the abuses of the drug war. 

Cannabis Health: Can you talk about the relationship between opium and prejudices held against Asian populations for this?

Dr. Carl Hart: In the United States at the turn of the 20th Century, we had a growing Chinese population. The Chinese population had the habit of smoking opium and they had open opium den facilities and in our country, while some of the white majority were jealous because those businesses were doing well… 

As a result, they vilified the practice of smoking opium and laws were passed to restrict who could go into those opium dens. So white people were no longer allowed to mix with Chinese people and own opium dens which caused those opium dens to not do well financially, and other white business owners opened their own opium dens.

We passed laws restricting opium-related drugs because of our dislike or hatred of Chinese-Americans or people who were from China. So, yes, the Chinese played an important role in our awful drug war history.  

Cannabis Health: How did growing up in Miami during the crack cocaine epidemic affect your outlook on drug use?

Dr. Carl Hart: We know what a real pandemic or epidemic is now with Covid-19. Crack was nowhere near that kind of thing. 

Now, when you ask how that affected me? That era, that time affected my outlook on drugs… It wasn’t just the crack era; it is growing up Black in America because you know the impact of your work and what you are saying. You know the impact that it is having on your community, particularly if it is having a negative effect. And so, our exaggerations of the negative effects of the drugs now contribute to more restricted drug laws and more repressive enforcement of drug laws, and people who are paying the price are poor people, Black and Brown people, my people!

This forces me to be really careful about exaggerating the harmful effects of drugs because I know that exaggerations have contributed to the subjugation of my people. 

Cannabis Health: Do you believe allowing recreational use will diminish the interest of the population for drugs?

Dr. Carl Hart: Certainly. It would take away some of the “forbidden fruit” phenomena… Places like Portugal or the Netherlands, where they have more liberal drug policies, their young people use drugs at rates far lower than our young people do in the Americas. So, there is an argument to be made that regulating drugs will take away the forbidden fruit phenomena and can actually decrease drug use.  

Cannabis Health: On some occasions you’ve visited my native Brazil, where criminal factions tied to drug businesses and far-right paramilitary groups run a parallel power to the state. What are your observations on the Brazilian scenario?

Dr. Carl Hart: So, when you have a place where you have substantial amounts of poverty, poor education and the government fails to take care of peoples’ basic needs like taking out the trash, transportation, and all of these sorts of things, when your government fails in delivering to the people, you are going to have other factions pop-up and they will try to meet the needs of people. It is not a surprise that you have these factions when people are so desperate. 

But that is not to say that something is wrong with those people, those people are responding exactly like you would predict they would respond. If people have their basic needs met, then you don’t have the necessity for any illicit sort of activities. But if those needs aren’t being met, then people will try to support their families in any way they can. Sometimes they may use illegal means. That is not a surprise. 

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