Drug Use for Grown Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear
© 2021 Carl Hart
My occasional forays into anarchist literature aside, I’m one of the squarest people you are ever likely to meet, a fellow whose idea of a good time involves comfy chairs, good company, and a cold drink or three. I’ve never consumed anything more interesting than single-malt Scotch, and yet over the years I’ve been increasingly drawn to the controversy over drug policy in the United States, largely thanks to my conviction that the people are not the belongings of the State. Carl Hart argues against the war on drugs from a different angle, however: as a professor of psychology at Columbia University, he has traveled extensively and conducted studies of the effects of various drugs upon the human body and mind. In his experience, he has concluded that appropriately-dosed drug use by responsible, healthy adults carries no risk for addiction, psychosis, etc. It’s a bold claim, and one I was eager to see argued.
Hart did not begin studying the science of drug use in order to defend a habit he had already embraced. Instead, growing up in a Miami riddled with drug use and crime, he sought to help his neighbors escape addiction by understanding drugs’ effects on the mind. Through his studies, he began to doubt the claims made about certain drugs, and in the spirit of scientific enterprise, he experimented himself. Throughout the book, we learn that Hart has used seemingly ever popular recreational drug over the sun – some regularly, some only once – almost always with positive results. (“Almost” because he purposely addicted himself to opioids in to experience withdrawal.) In each case, Hart considers the history of a given substance’s ban, the medical literature (or lack thereof) supporting bans, and then moves into his own surveys and personal experiences. He dissects sloppy studies that have been the basis of policy for years and shares others offering opposing conclusions, either conducted by himself or by colleagues. Most drug users, he argues, enjoy their substance of choice in the same way that others enjoy a drink: it’s done out of honest desire for pleasure, the moment is enjoyed, and they go to work the next morning. He frequently points out the near-identical chemical consistencies of “bad” drugs and licit prescribed narcotic, and asks: if these have the same constitution and same effects, why are some regarded as appropriate for use by responsible adults, and the others regarded a crime on the level of theft, arson, and murder?
Hart believes that a substantial part of the war on drugs, from the earliest bannings around the turn of the 20th century to the present day, stem from racism. Stimulants and opiods were present in all manner of consumer goods in the 19th century: sodas, chewing gum, over the counter medicines, etc. It was not until large waves of immigration began reshaping American cities, bringing with them new consumptive practices (opium dens, for instance) that promoted race-mixing that the force of law and order began a war against what people could put into their own bodies. Hart doesn’t connect the nascent drug war to the tides of the Progressive period, which sought to ‘clean up’ cities and society by bulldozing slums for parking lots, outlawing residential hotels, creating sanitary institutions, and imposing abstinence of all kinds on society at large: he instead focuses on race to the exclusion of everything else. Hart’s discussion of race is a substantial part of the book, as some recent death-by-cop instances have seen the shootings legally exonerated on the basis of the victim’s drug use at the time, to public outcry and mass arson.
Hart does not dispute that drugs can lead to addiction and be culpable in the premature deaths of many. Those who are in mentally fragile states to begin with – who are depressed, groping for meaning, etc – can easily abuse these substances and destroy themselves. These same people are vulnerable to addiction to substances that the state won’t imprison them for decades for holding, however: alcohol, nicotine, sex, take your pick. Because punitive drug laws force so much of the trade into the shadows, further, those seeking pain relief or a good time are forced to conduct business with questionable vendors selling dodgy products, often mixed with other materials that make it difficult to determine safe doses – if tainted dope can be considered safe to any degree. (Historically, the same was witnessed during the United States’ experiment with Prohibition: when booze was driven from the open market, bathtub gin and the like grew in the black market, and poisonings happened frequently.) Adopting an approach like Portugal or Spain, where personal-use possession is not a crime and where it is easy to test the integrity of product, would do much to diminish drug-related deaths. As we saw in Narconomics, safety and quality both increase when the black market is allowed to operate more in the light – though in that case, thanks to the anonymity of the Tor-accessible dark web than through decriminalization or legalization.
Hart’s case is stronger in its science than its presentation, as I found him increasingly difficult to take seriously. The writing is far less informal than one would expect in a book advocating science-based social policies, with gems like “That grown-ass man did not just say that. WTF?” making me wonder if he was composing a book or a tweet. Race, while a massive aspect of the war on drugs, is a particularly sensitive topic for Hart, and it makes him frequently uncharitable and obnoxious: any time a drug-related death-by-cop happens, Hart accuses the reporting citizens or policemen of subscribing to the “crazed coked up n——” myth, going so far as to put those words in people’s mouths. Hart dismisses fears that criminals under the influence of drugs are more aggressive and pain-resistant than sober crooks as mere racism, without considering all of the testable medical claims inherent in those fears, and this particular instance is repeated numerous times throughout the book. It’s cheap, needlessly belligerent, and unprofessional.
Drug Use for Grown Ups was, despite its faults, a singularly fascinating book. I was mildly scandalized when Michael Pollan revealed he had been experimenting with psychedelics (How to Change Your Mind), but will admit to a voyeuristic interest into what drug use is actually like. Pollan and Hart’s cases make me wonder if the claims pushed by the state about inevitable addiction and mind destruction isn’t as overstated as its other sweeping generalizations, misrepresentations, and outright lies. I’ve witnessed too much of the chaotic effects of drugs on vulnerable populations to dismiss safety concerns out of hand, and in the end remain where I am: an advocate against the drug war on the basis of self-ownership, rather than the argued-for harmlessness of drugs when used responsibly. I’m glad to have learned that they aren’t the equivalent for nukes for the brain, but I don’t think I’ll join him and Pollan on Tim Leary’s bus ride…
Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opioid Epidemic, Sam Quinones. Excellent history of the growth of the pill-pushers, both legal and illicit.
The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander. An analysis of the drug war’s disproportionate effect on the United States’ black population, particularly the poverty and disenfranchisement promoted by mass incarceration
Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko. A history of police militarization, largely fueled by the drug war. One of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read, the one that convinced me to look into Waco & Ruby Ridge.