Policies restricting drug use are fueling the drug crisis, says Dr. Carl Hart

What's wrong with responsible adults using psychoactive drugs in the pursuit of happiness? Nothing, according to neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart who believes healthy adults have the right to use drugs to enhance their lives as they see fit. Hart argues policies that restrict and punish drug use are fueling the drug crisis in Canada and the United States.

Hart argues risks associated with drug use have been overstated for healthy adults

Neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart believes attitudes and laws around drug use need to change, particularly in his own country, the United States. (Harper Collins)

Activist Carl Hart is known for his positive views on responsible drug use for healthy adults. He himself has used drugs for pleasure.

What makes him a less typical advocate for legalization is that he is a neuropsychopharmacologist, winner of a PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, and Chair of Psychology at Columbia University.  

Hart argues that — based on his review of empirical and scientific evidence — addiction is not a brain disease, and that the many healthy people who use drugs recreationally do not become addicted. Accordingly, he contends that attitudes and laws need to change, particularly in his own country, the United States. It was a message he brought recently to a Wall Institute lecture at the University of British Columbia.

Hart argues that healthy adults should be able to choose their own forms of recreation, including psychoactive substances that we consider riskily addictive. Current thinking sees addiction as a neurobiological disease. But Hart argues against that, and in favour of contributing psychosocial factors in individual users, such as poverty, mental illness, and extreme stress.

Recently...we did a major critical review of the (scientific) literature to point out to people that this notion that drug addiction is a brain disease — like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or Huntington's —is just not supported by evidence.-  Carl Hart

Dr. Hart contends that — for healthy adults — the risks associated with drug use have been overstated, particularly as compared to other activities. Even the opioid crisis, in his view, is more about mixing substances, and the addition of dangerous fentanyl on the seller's side. He compares it to adulterated alcohol sold during Prohibition, and says the safety problems can be resolved by regulating the market and demanding quality control.

Carl Hart believes that the freedom to use drugs is a matter of civil liberties and "...the policies that regulate drugs do nothing but exacerbate drug-related problems."

Since many users are racialized and/or marginalized, he calls for "respectable" drug users to "come out of the closet" and upend the stereotypes about who uses drugs, and why.

Guests in the program

  • Carl Hart is a neuropsychopharmacologist, and Chair of the Department of Psychology, at Columbia University. His book is called, High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society (Harper Perennial, 2014).
  • Caitlin Shane is a staff lawyer at Pivot Legal Society.  She advocates for reforms to drug laws and policies at all levels of government in Canada. 
  • Garth Mullins is the moderator of the discussion. He is an award winning-radio producer whose work has appeared on Ideas. He's also the host of Crackdown, a podcast that presents the perspective of drug users on the unfolding overdose crisis in Vancouver.

This panel was recorded at The Wall Exchange at the University of British Columbia

Further Reference

Health Canada website
U.S. Centres for Disease Control statistics on opioid use
CBC's On Drugs podcast


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