November 7, 2013
Growing familiarity with marijuana has been accompanied by growing support for legalization because people discovered through personal experience that the government was lying to them about the drug’s hazards. But it is easier to demonize less popular drugs such as crack cocaine and methamphetamine, which in the public mind are still linked, as marijuana once was, with addiction, madness, and violence. Any attempt to question the use of force in dealing with these drugs therefore must begin by separating reality from horror stories.
That is where Carl Hart comes in. Hart, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Columbia who grew up in one of Miami’s rougher neighborhoods, has done bold, path-breaking research that challenges widely accepted beliefs about crack and meth. In his inspiring and fascinating new memoir High Price, he describes both how he overcame his early disadvantages to secure a tenured position at an Ivy League university and how he came to question everything he thought he knew about drugs as he learned to think critically about the issue.
Before he became a scientist, Hart believed that people who use crack generally get hooked on it and thereby lose control of their behavior. But when he looked at the data on patterns of drug use as an academic, he could plainly see that only a small minority of people who try crack become heavy users. “Even at the peak [of] widespread use,” he writes, “only 10–20 percent of crack cocaine users became addicted.” According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, just 3 percent of Americans who have tried this reputedly irresistible and inescapable drug have smoked it in the last month.