There Is No Good Drug War

Maya Schenwar, Interview “There Is No Good Drug War,” Truthout, 31 July 2013

Twenty years ago, when acclaimed neuroscientist Carl Hart began studying drugs, he was motivated by a desire to help communities like the one in which he grew up: poor communities of color that had been, he believed, ravaged by the crack “epidemic.” The media craze around crack headlines was swirling to a fever pitch at the time – the late ’80s and early ’90s – and, Hart writes, “I became utterly convinced that crack cocaine was the cause of everything that I now saw as wrong with the neighborhood.”

However, nothing is that straightforward, in the world or in High Price, and Hart’s work in the lab called into question some of his most deeply rooted assumptions.

As the DARE program hit its full stride and the aftermath of Nancy Reagan produced ever-more-terrifying tales of drugs’ disastrousness, Hart was piecing together a more complex picture—one in which most drug users don’t become addicted (in fact, only a small percentage do), and in which even the most taboo drugs can have positive effects. …

As Hart worked to navigate this new research path, he reflected on the impact of the crack “epidemic” on his neighborhood in fresh ways. Poverty, violence and crime always had been present – only now, they were being reframed as the result of a drug, a personal choice. In other words, Hart writes, “Problems in my neighborhood that were later attributed to crack cocaine had actually preceded it.” The universal blame assigned to crack, he writes, served to mask systemic problems – things that aren’t personal choices – like entrenched poverty, institutionalized racism, and the underfunding of education and skill-building programs that might help youths develop sustainable, fulfilling futures. …

So High Price isn’t simply asserting that the war on drugs has failed. Hart is saying that this “war” is founded on false assumptions, presuming drug use as a cause rather than an effect (or in many cases, a side activity that plays a role in many people’s lives). There’s no such thing as a good drug war, or a “successful” drug war. Instead of maintaining an “irrational focus on eliminating certain drugs,” which targets people of color and deposits many youth in an unending cycle of incarceration, Hart contends that we should concentrate public policy energy around confronting the core problems that decimate communities like the one in which he grew up. …

MS: That brings up an important aspect of your book – you chose to write it as part-memoir, which worked to foreground how race and poverty play into the way the war on drugs is carried out and the effects it has. You tell personal stories that show how all kinds of problems are blamed on crack and other drugs when really their sources are things like poverty and racism and the injustices of the criminal justice system. Why have all these huge social problems been attributed to personal choices to take drugs? And why have all of us been buying this idea for 30 years?

CH: The memoir portion was deeply difficult to do. But a lot of times people talk about drugs’ effects without context, and I wanted to provide the context of my life, my community. I wanted people to see that there are things we can place in people’s environments that increase the likelihood of success. Things like sports, summer programs, other opportunities for kids. When these kinds of programs are cut, there’s backlash – and the scapegoat becomes these drugs that most of these folks don’t use regularly. Now you can blame things on the drugs, and not the policies.

Even in those communities, you have people agreeing about crack cocaine destroying the community. They’re saying, “I know it because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” Then there’s the media and the government spreading this message. … There is a buy-in from a diverse group of professionals. I’m telling them their ideas aren’t right – and they don’t want to hear it.

MS: You’ve mentioned how there aren’t many studies that acknowledge the positive effects of illegal drugs, which is funny because sometimes those effects manifest very similarly to the effects of legal drugs. At one point, you compared methamphetamine and Adderol, for example. This made me think about how in some ways, the scheduling of some drugs as illegal and some drugs as legal comes across as arbitrary. 

CH: It’s not arbitrary, but it has little to do with pharmacology. It certainly doesn’t have much to do with potency. Nicotine is one of most potent drugs in the world. The reasons go back to these despised groups – when a drug is associated with them, it often becomes illegal.

This happens through history: Cocaine became associated with black people in the South. The concern with opium was that there were all these Chinese people using it – even though the average user was a 30- to 50-year-old white woman. Marijuana became associated with Mexicans and black people. And meth was restricted when people like bikers and hippies – and young people – were seen to be the ones using that drug.

Read the interview here.