Rethinking dangerous drugs

First aired on Q (9/7/13)


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Everything we think we know about dangerous drugs is wrong -- and the policies in place to deal with drugs and drug users are hugely problematic. At least, that's what Carl Hart argues in his new book, High Price. And he's got the cred to back up this claim: Hart is a neuroscientist and tenured professor at Columbia University in the psychology and psychiatry departments and serves on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse.

Hart sets out to debunk several long-held beliefs about so-called "dangerous drugs" such as crack cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. First, they are not as addictive as claimed. Yes, the potential for addiction exists, but "80 to 90 per cent of the people who use those drugs don't have a problem with it," Hart told Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview. He points to the three most recent U.S. presidents -- Barack Obama, George Bush and Bill Clinton, all who admitted to using drugs in the past -- as examples of what could be considered a typical user. Casual use, not addiction, is the norm, just as it is with alcohol.

Hart is quick to point out he's not discounting the potentially dangerous side effects of drug use. Anyone who uses psychoactive drugs should be aware of the potentially powerful consequences. But for Hart, education and awareness are key. "With drugs there are potentially good effects and potentially negative effects, and if we understand the real effects with drugs, we can minimize the negative effects and enhance the positive effects."

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Hart also hopes that by better understanding drugs, we can develop better public policies around drug use. More than 1.5 million people each year are arrested in the United States for drugs, Hart said, and 80 per cent of these arrests are for "simple drug possession." A criminal record prevents people from seeking opportunities, from getting work and from "mak[ing] a contribution to the society" -- and young black men are disproportionally represented in this group.

This is a problem Hart has seen first hand. He grew up in a poor neighbour in Miami during the late 1970s and early 1980s -- when Miami was the "powder cocaine capital." He avoided getting into trouble thanks to a combination of being involved in athletics, having access to social programs targeted at poor people and not getting a criminal record, despite his involvement in a few petty crimes. By changing drug policy and social policy to focus on rehabilitation, more youth growing up in high risk neighbourhoods will get a chance to make better lives for themselves. Drugs are present, Hart said, but the roots of the problems in neighbourhoods like the one he grew up in run much deeper and are far more complicated.

Blaming drugs allow governments to ignore the real problems, according to Hart. "Drugs are such powerful and convenient scapegoats," he said. "If somebody is screwing up in society and you say, 'Oh, they are on drugs, that's the answer,' you don't have to provide jobs, you don't have to provide programs, you don't have to provide skills. Drugs are the problem, that's it, it's over."

Hart hopes that books like High Price can be the beginning of a broader conversation about drugs and their effects on users and current drug policies and their effects on marginalized communities. "I am just trying to elevate the conversation," he said. "I'm trying to make my contribution by telling the broader society that we know what it takes to help those people become successful, but we have simply ignored it and not made it a priority. We have made policy choices that show that we don't care."



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