Researcher visits, talks addiction
If a researcher puts an animal in a cage with only an opportunity to self-administer cocaine, the animal will do so until they overdose.
Unless there are other things to do within the cage.
Carl Hart, the first tenured African-American science professor at Columbia University, read two separate studies, one about animals alone in a cage with drugs and one with the more ‘enriched’ cage, and in the second study the animals didn’t administer the drugs to themselves as often.
So Hart decided to do the same study, but with humans.
“Many of the problems that were attributed to drugs in the community, unemployment, crime, you name it, we blame drugs,” he said. “But as I learned more in my study of drugs, drugs weren’t the problem. It was other things like lack of education, communities actually being deprived of services, people in the communities with no skills, resources taken out of the community, those kinds of things, were far bigger problems than drugs.”
Hart, the guest speaker for the Center of Student Diversity Speaker series, wrote the book The High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery that Challenges Everything you Know about Drugs and Society.
Hart began his study with drugs when he got kicked out of the Air Force for marijuana use and subsequently began taking classes at the University of North Carolina, he said.
“I wanted to learn what drugs were doing to the brain,” Hart said. “It was just interesting to learn how the brain works and I was always curious why people became addicted.”
It was in graduate school that Hart began his “quest to find out how and why these drugs were so addictive.”
He grew up in one of the toughest Miami neighborhoods, one that people considered deprived, and wanted to figure out what drugs do to the brain so he could prevent people from taking them because he saw them as awful for the community. But after his research he said that he was wrong, that drugs weren’t the problem but the lack of other options, an ‘enriched’ cage.
Eighty to 90 percent of people who use drugs like crack cocaine, heroine and methamphetamine are not addicted, he said.
“That was an important thing to discover and the notion that one hit of any drug and you’re addicted is ludicrous,” Hart said.
Through his study with humans, Hart realized that if addicts were given the option between the substance that they were addicted to and something else, such as money, more than half of the time they wouldn’t choose the drugs.
“It was shocking to me because I was under the assumption that these drugs were so addictive that given the opportunity to take that drug, they would take it,” he said. “That was wrong.”
Hart said that the decriminalization of drugs is important in helping better communities. He believes in this policy change for two reasons: it has been effective in other countries, such as Portugal, and our country is ignorant on drugs.
“Drugs are used as an excuse for not taking better steps,” he said.
When driving cars there is the potential that somebody can die, he said. But we don’t make cars illegal, we just educate people how to drive, he said. And the same goes for sex education.
“There is a disproportionate application of drug law,” he said.
When Hart wrote his book, he thought it could help tremendously in changing policy, he said.
“I hope that my research helps people to have a more evidence-based view of drugs and then if they have a more evidence-based view on drugs, it will help us to focus on the real problems faced by marginalized communities,” he said. “I hope it’s an accessible way to understand what drugs do and what drugs don’t do. I hope it’s an engaging narrative that helps people to think more critically about the problems that are faced by these marginalized people.”