DPA Board Member Carl Hart in The NY Times: The Science of Drug Addiction

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September 18, 2013 - By Avinash Tharoor

Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor in Columbia University’s prestigious Psychology department, recently told the New York Times that the scientific community has played a “less than honorable role in the war on drugs.”

“Eighty to 90 percent of people are not negatively affected by drugs, but in the scientific literature nearly 100 percent of the reports are negative,” Dr. Hart said. “There’s a skewed focus on pathology. We scientists know that we get more money if we keep telling Congress that we’re solving this terrible problem.”

Dr. Hart has focused much of his research on the relationship between drug use and human behavior. In the 1990s, he began researching the issue of drug addiction, particularly relating to crack cocaine and methamphetamine - the former having been perceived as the epidemical narcotic at the time, and the latter having fervently grown in usage rates in the past decade.

A vital result of Dr. Hart’s research has been the dispelling of myths and misunderstandings of addiction that are often perpetuated in modern society. The research that he undertook to glean this data was extensive.

He recruited addicts from New York City to stay in a hospital ward, administered a dose of crack cocaine each morning, and then offered the patients small deferred cash incentives as an alternative to further doses throughout the day. The study found that, overwhelmingly, patients opted for the eventual payment. Dr. Hart discovered that, contrary to popular belief, “eighty to ninety percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted” – a staggeringly high statistic considering the representation of such drug users in the media.

Dr. Hart’s newly-released book, High Price, has been described as “a hard-hitting attack on current drug policy”, and gives insight into the reality of narcotic use and addiction from both a scientific and social perspective. His awareness has been fuelled by the deprived circumstances of his upbringing, and the impact that the drug war had upon his formative years.

Perhaps the most important consequence of Dr. Hart’s work is the recognition that societal problems far outweigh the chemical strength of drugs when determining rates of addiction. Examining this data, it is clear why the current strategy of aggressive prohibitionism is failing to subdue problematic narcotic use. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to prioritize the value of scientific research when reforming drug policy.

Avinash Tharoor is a freelance journalist and an intern at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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