On Drug Use, Racism, and the Pursuit of Happiness in America
Carl L. Hart Talks to Andrew Keen on Keen On
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In this episode, Andrew talks with Dr. Carl L. Hart about his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. Carl discusses the restrictions, benefits, and dangers of recreational drug use in the US. Between drug policy, the criminal justice system, and racially ordained liberties in America, Dr. Hart also condemns the country’s treatment of drug users dependent upon their race.
From the episode:
Andrew Keen: I’m curious as to your take on psychedelic drugs. There’s a new—and I’m getting this from Literary Hub—a “renaissance of psychedelic drugs and a quest for medical legitimacy.” I have some friends who have a startup focusing on this. Should psychedelic drugs be having a renaissance? And talk to me a little bit about the current state of not drug use in the United States, but the types of drugs that are being used and which are more or less fashionable.
Carl L. Hart: In recent years, it’s been fashionable to take psychedelic drugs to explore your spirituality, to be more connected with the earth and a wide range of effects that people are seeking. Drugs like psilocybin, drugs like ayahuasca, which is DMT, people have used in their quest to be one with the universe, for example. And many people report being better people as a result of having done this. They report this being a positive thing, and that’s a good thing. We are becoming more acceptable of that sort of drug-taking behavior in our society.
But when we think about drugs like heroin and cocaine or methamphetamine, we don’t think of those drugs as producing these sort of enlightened states that people are seeking from psychedelics. When in fact they are capable of producing these enlightened states. But we have decided that some drugs are bad and other drugs are not. And this sort of determination is not based on pharmacology; it’s based on sociology. It’s based on American racism.
Andrew Keen: Let’s talk a little bit about that American racism. You begin the book with a quote from James Baldwin, the very distinguished African American writer and polemicist. Baldwin wrote, “If you want to get to the heart of the dope problem, legalize it. Prohibition is a law, an operation that can only be used against the poor.” In terms of your use of Baldwin’s quote at the beginning, what is the connection between the exploitation and abuse of the poor and drug laws?
Carl L. Hart: Well, Baldwin made that statement in December 1986. And in September 1986, we passed some of the most draconian drug laws, most restrictive drug laws, and we claimed to be looking at poor minority communities in urban areas. And what Baldwin was saying was that these new restrictive laws will only harm the poor because the folks who have means, the people who are connected, social capital, they will circumvent these laws anyway and they’ll still get their drugs. The only people who you’re going to be arresting are these poor people.
And he was right. The evidence shows that he was absolutely right. Those laws punished crack cocaine violations 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine violations. That is, when somebody is caught with a small amount of crack cocaine, they would be required to go to jail for five years minimum. To trigger the same sentence for something like powder cocaine—which they are the same drug, by the way—you would need to have 100 times the amount to trigger that same sentence.
And so Baldwin, he was right. He was one of the few people who was saying, this is silly, this new law is silly. And he was also—he didn’t say it explicitly, but he was also maybe suggesting that we behave like we claim to be. We behave in a way that’s consistent with those people who we think we are, who believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Dr. Carl L. Hart is the Chair of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. He is also the Ziff Professor of Psychology in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry. Professor Hart has published numerous scientific and popular articles in the area of neuropsychopharmacology and is co-author of the textbook Drugs, Society and Human Behavior (with Charles Ksir). His book High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, was the 2014 winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Professor Hart has appeared on multiple podcasts, radio and television shows including Real Time with Bill Maher and The O’Reilly Factor. He has also appeared in several documentary films including the award-winning The House I Live In. His essays have been published in several popular publications including The New York Times, Scientific American, The Nation, Ebony, The Root, and O Globo (Brazil’s leading newspaper).
Carl is committed to the people who are sick and tired of seeing their tax dollars being used to fund unethical people and corporations, which ultimately perpetuates social inequality and does not lead to effective drug policy. A key element of his approach is the use of empirical evidence to guide public policy, even if it makes us uncomfortable. If we do this, people could have more humane and effective criminal justice policy, and a healthier and more productive society overall.