Everything Americans Think They Know About Drugs Is Wrong: A Scientist Explodes the Myths

Today I just had to reblog the opinion pieces below that bring a new perspective to the entire issue of the War on Drugs.


Everything Americans Think They Know About Drugs Is Wrong: A Scientist Explodes the Myths

What many Americans, including many scientists, think they know about drugs is turning out to be totally wrong. For decades, drug war propaganda has brainwashed Americans into blaming drugs for problems ranging from crime to economic deprivation. In his new book High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, Dr. Carl Hart blows apart the most common myths about drugs and their impact on society, drawing in part on his personal experience growing up in an impoverished Miami neighborhood. Dr. Hart has used marijuana and cocaine, carried guns, sold drugs, and participated in other petty crime, like shoplifting. A combination of what he calls choice and chance brought him to the Air Force and college, and finally made him the first black, tenured professor of sciences at Columbia University.

Intertwined with his story about the struggles of families and communities stressed by lack of capital and power over their surroundings is striking new research on substance use. Dr. Hart uses his life and work to reveal that drugs are not nearly as harmful as many think. For example, most people who use the most “addicting” drugs do not develop a problem. Rather, Dr. Hart says, drugs are scapegoated for problems related to poverty. The policies that result from this misconception are catastrophically misguided. AlterNet spoke with Dr. Hart about his life and research.

Kristen Gynne: What are some of the false conclusions about drugs you are challenging?

Carl Hart: There are multiple false conclusions. There is a belief, for example, that crack cocaine is so addictive it only took one hit to get hooked, and that it is impossible to use heroin without becoming addicted. There was another belief that methamphetamine users are cognitively impaired. All of these are myths that have have been perpetuated primarily by law enforcement, and law enforcement deals with a limited, select group of people—people who are, in many cases, behaving badly. But to generalize that to all drug users is not only shortsighted and naive, it’s also irresponsible. The impact of that irresponsible behavior has been borne primarily by black communities. Nobody really cares about black communities, and that’s why this irresponsible behavior has been allowed to continue.

It’s also true that we’ve missed critical opportunities to challenge our basic assumptions about drugs. If drugs really were as damaging as we are led to believe, a respectable society should do something to address that problem. But the thing is, the very assumptions driving our drug policy are wrong, and must be questioned.

KG: How does the lack of people of color in academia or research affect our understanding of drugs?

CH: I’d just like to be clear, I don’t say people of color, I say black people, because people of color can mean a number of other [races]. I’m talking about black people who, like me, when we go back to our communities and we ask about people who we grew up with, the response is, “Well, they got caught up with a drug charge, they’re upstate. They’re doing some time” or, “Oh, he’s doing better now that he got out of jail. He can’t really find a good job, but he’s doing his best.”

It would be nice if we had black scientists, more black people in science, to incorporate these kinds of experiences as they think about the questions they investigate. The problem is it’s so homogenous that critical questions about our community are ignored because they’re not seen as being important.

KG: And the result is that they don’t comprehend environment, or the other variables that are affecting someone’s decisions or behavior, and miss the mark?

CH: That’s exactly right. It’s that if you don’t contextualize what is happening with drugs in the country you might get the impression that drugs are so bad they’re causing all these people to go to jail: “Let’s find out how drugs are exerting these awful effects.” Now, you have just completely disregarded context in which all of these things occur, and that is what has happened in science. If you don’t fully appreciate the context, and you think that drug users are awful, then you don’t think about how a person takes care of their kid, takes care of their family, goes to work, but they also use drugs. If you don’t think about all of those contextual factors, you limit the picture and that’s what we’ve done.

It’s not that science lies. Science doesn’t lie. But when you look at your research with a limited view, you may erroneously draw conclusions about drugs, when in fact other variables you might not understand are what’s really at play.

KG: You talk about how people are always blaming problems on drugs, when those issues really spring from the stress of poverty. What are some examples?

CH: I think crack cocaine is the easiest example In the 1980s, as I was coming of age in my teens and my early 20s, people—black people, white folks, a number of people in the country—said crack was so awful it was causing women to give up their babies and neglect their children such that grandmothers had to raise another generation of children.

Now, if you look at the history in poor communities—my community, my family—long before crack ever hit the scene, that sort of thing happened in my house. We were raised by my grandmother. My mother went away because she and my father split up. She went away in search of better jobs and left the state, but it wasn’t just her. This sort of thing, this pathology that is attributed to drugs, happened to immigrant communities like the Eastern European Jews when they came to the Lower East SIde, but people simply blamed crack in the 1980s and the 1990s.

Another example is that, since the crack era, multiple studies have found that the effects of crack cocaine use during pregnancy do not create an epidemic of doomed black “crack babies.” Instead, crack-exposed children are growing up to lead normal lives, and studies have repeatedly found that the diferences between them and babies who were not exposed cannot be isolated from the health effects of growing up poor, without a stable, safe environment or access to healthcare.

KG: What about the idea that drugs can turn people into criminals?

CH: The pharmalogical effects of drugs rarely lead to crime, but the public conflates these issues regardless. If we were going to look at how pharmalogical drugs influence crime, we should probably look at alcohol. We know sometimes people get unruly when they drink, but the vast majority of people don’t. Certainly, we have given thousands of doses of crack cocaine and methamphetamine to people in our lab, and never had any problems with violence or anything like that. That tells you it’s not the pharmacology of the drug, but some interaction with the environment or environmental conditions, that would probably happen without the drug. Sure, new markets of illegal activity are often or sometimes associated with increased violence, or some other illegal activity, but it is not specific to drugs like people try to make it out to be.

Other than crime, you have myths that drugs cause cognitive impairment, make people unable to be productive members of society, or tear families apart. If the vast majority of people are using these drugs without problems—and a smaller proportion of users do have problems—what that tells you if you’re thinking critically is it can’t be only the drug, or mainly the drug. It tells you it is something about the individual situations, environmental conditions, a wide range of factors.

There are many accepted “facts” that turn out to have been erroneous assumptions, even some produced by science, for it takes humility, self-doubt and constant vigilance for the effects of conflicts of interest, to remain objective.

All too frequently, those with the loudest, most dogmatic and least objective views hold sway (The Dunning-Kruger Effect), derailing progress and wasting scarce resources.

The article above may give you reason to pause and consider the author’s comments in light of the dismal failure that is current drug policy. If politicians fail to suspend assumption and false beliefs in lieu of an unbiased & objective examination of the evidence, necessary findings & conclusions that must underpin decisions re drug policy, will be missed and the consequences of taking dead-end detours in this arena will serve only to perpetuate the current disaster for future generations.


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