Now is the time to face the truth about drug use – Q&A with Carl Hart

In his TEDMED talk, Carl Hart offered a highly provocative but evidence based view of drug addiction and its links with crime. Carl speaks from personal experience; he grew up in a poor neighborhood in Miami, where he himself engaged in petty crime and drug use. Today, Carl is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Columbia University, and a self-professed advocate for social justice and science.  

"I was unprepared for what I would learn as I went about making my contribution to the study of the neurobiology of addiction." - Carl Hart, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Kevosk Djansezian]

“I was unprepared for what I would learn as I went about making my contribution to the study of the neurobiology of addiction.” – Carl Hart, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Kevosk Djansezian]

We reached out to Carl to learn more about why his talk is particularly timely today. Here was his response:

Today – May 19 –  would have been Malcolm X’s 90th birthday, had he not been assassinated fifty years ago. Malcolm X’s influence on human rights, social justice activists, and me is increasingly apparent as society becomes more concerned about issues of over-policing in certain communities. My TEDMED talk, “Let’s quit abusing drug users,” is particularly important today because it illustrates the detrimental impact of aggressive selective drug law enforcement on communities of color.

In recent months, the issue of hostile, militarized policing has been pushed to the national forefront in response to the killing of the black, unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. Similar types of killings have occurred too often under the guise of the war on drugs. Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Kathryn Johnston, Trayvon Martin, and Tarika Wilson are just a few examples. In all of these cases, authorities suspected that the deceased individual was either intoxicated from or selling an illicit substance. This talk shows that dangers of drugs have been exaggerated, and that this has helped to created an environment where unjustified police killings are more likely to occur.

The importance of my talk is even further enhanced because too many people misattribute societal ills to drug problems. For example, the majority of people who use drugs – 80-90% – don’t have a drug problem. They are responsible members of our society. They are employed; they pay their taxes; they take care of their families; and in some cases, they even become President of the United States. Our three most recent Presidents all reported using illegal drugs when they were younger. In my talk, I clearly show that the real problems faced by society are not drugs but are poverty, unemployment, ignorance and the dismissal of science that surrounds drugs.

In my TEDMED talk, I also present intriguing results from my own research, during which we brought crack users into the laboratory and offered them $5 cash, or a hit of crack worth more than $5. We repeated this many times with each person over several days in the laboratory.  The drug users chose the drug about half of the time, and the $5 the other half. Even a nominal amount of money was enough to deter them from taking the drug at least half of the time. These findings are inconsistent with the notion that crack users display the insane, “anything for a hit” behavior that I had been previously taught. They also demonstrate how attractive alternatives, such as viable economic opportunities, can go a long way in decreasing societal problems, including drug abuse.

Watch Carl’s TEDMED 2014 talk, “Let’s quit abusing drug users,” here: