THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
Columbia University psychology professor Carl Hart believes he has the fix for America’s drug problems: legalize drugs. All of them.
Mr. Hart thinks factors such as cost-effectiveness and saving lives are important parts of his solution, but they are not the chief reasons he said society should take the step to legalization. Instead, he said, it is a matter of freedom.
“I’m talking about treating adults like adults,” Mr. Hart said. “What I’m trying to do is to get Americans to really grapple with what the Declaration of Independence means. This promise of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It means you can live your life as you see fit.”
Mr. Hart’s conclusion is radical and a marked departure from Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, but organizations ranging from the liberal NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) to the conservative National Review have widely embraced some degree of drug legalization.
Mr. Hart is under no illusion that legalization would happen quickly, but he sees broad areas where the left and right can agree, if not from a liberty perspective then from an economic one. After all, the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion combating drug use that nevertheless remains prevalent while overdose deaths mount and jails fill up with offenders.
Still, Mr. Hart tugs the discussion away from practical reasons and toward a philosophical core.
“Some people use heroin as part of their pursuit of happiness,” he said.
Mr. Hart, 54, raised four children in New York City. Before they might have been tempted or exposed to drugs, the Harts had already been scared straight, so to speak, by his research.
From his offices at Columbia’s Upper West Side campus and Columbia Presbyterian Hospital farther uptown, Mr. Hart conducts experiments with human volunteers and various drugs. The research sheds light on reactions and tolerance and is designed to create even more effective drug treatment and education programs.
The journey has not been quick. Mr. Hart began as a devout “drug warrior” aghast at the damage illegal drugs wrought in America.
“It’s been an evolution,” he said. “I drank the Kool-Aid. I thought drugs were the problem.”
He eventually concluded, however, that the problem was not drugs but their illicit status, which gives them an allure and brings down the overwhelming power of the state on users.
Opponents of drug legalization argue that easy access and lack of legal consequences would result in more drug users, more addiction, more crime and more broken families.
Mr. Hart counters that illegality hasn’t dented the demand for drugs.
What’s more, given that the supply lines remain open for illegal drugs, it is unlikely that legalization would unleash a flood of new addicts, he said.
But what about a flood of stoned workers?
“So think about alcohol and people drunk at work. That would certainly dampen productivity,” Mr. Hart said. “Americans don’t come to work drunk, and the ones who do don’t last very long and then there are other people to replace them. The same would be true with any other drug.
“Why would we expect them to behave any differently with any other drug?” he asked. “We do this with one of the most intoxicating substances known to humankind: alcohol. And we do that quite well. If people come and they are intoxicated, they smell of alcohol, there is a social stigma, we shun them and we also have other consequences for those people. The same would be true if they came to work stoned.”
Mr. Hart said the claim that full drug legalization has been tried in some places and gone awry is a lie.
Parts of Europe have broadly decriminalized drugs, but not fully. The images of those places as blighted landscapes of needle-strewn parks with slumped addicts on benches is false, he said.
“This issue related to the needle parks, that was a phenomenon in the late ’80s, early ’90s,” he said. “That was in Switzerland, in Zurich, and one of the ways the Swiss dealt with that is they were concerned about HIV/AIDS, and they instituted this program where they gave heroin to people who met criteria for heroin addiction.”
‘A jobs program’
With a team in place to treat and guide them, addicts were given heroin twice a day. That idea appears startling, but Mr. Hart said it has met with much success.
“More than 20 years later, this program is still in effect,” he said. “In fact, it has grown throughout the country and throughout Europe, and most of the people in the program are working. They’re happy. And so this notion of the needle park, that’s an idea that’s 25 years old, and this was dealt with quite effectively.”
He said the common image of so-called junkies is also false.
“In the U.S., we have this sensational image, this unreasonable image of this aberrant image of someone who uses heroin, of this poor soul who needs our help,” he said. “And that makes us feel better as good liberals or whatever people are. But that ain’t reality. The reality is people want to be left alone.”
Mr. Hart said his research points to much smaller percentages of true addiction. He pinpoints the percentage of alcoholics among drinkers at 15% to 20%, cocaine addiction at 20% to 25% of users, and heroin addiction at 25% to 30% of users.
He thinks those numbers are manageable.
Society knows Marlboros and Jack Daniels are desirable to some and potentially deadly to all, and that same knowledge can be extended to other drugs.
“The war on drugs has been a boon for a number of people in our society, and they know it,” he said. “We don’t talk about the war on drugs as a jobs program, but that’s what it is. We have to figure out a role for law enforcement to be involved with this new approach, and if you don’t, they’re going to fight this tooth and nail like their salaries depended upon it.”
Mr. Hart sees drug legalization more as a reallocation than savings in terms of revenue. If the demand side were legal, he said, what would happen to the supply side and the criminal syndicates that control it?
“They’ll find other work,” Mr. Hart said with a hint of a laugh. “They always do. And they only become ruthless when you put a tremendous amount of law enforcement pressure on them. The ones who are the most ruthless are the ones who survive, and that’s the same thing with Nike and other corporations that we revere. They just fight in different ways.”
Mr. Hart said he would like Americans to worry less about the finances of cartel members and more about what sorts of drugs people are ingesting. Tainted and counterfeit drugs are responsible for high percentages of deaths, he said.
“Americans in general who don’t use heroin, what they may think of is the other aspects, where people who are dying from what we are calling heroin overdoses,” he said. “Most of these people are dying from ignorance — ignorance to not knowing what is in their substance — because many of the illicit heroin is tainted with potentially more dangerous substances, like fentanyl. They need better education. How to do this without putting themselves in harm’s way and the illegality means it precludes us from telling people how to do these things in a more safe manner.”
Mr. Hart sees an imbalance that could be fixed by legalizing drugs.
“When we talk about those people who can go out and get it, it’s largely the people who are privileged in the society who can do that,” he said. “Whereas the ones who are going to pay the price are those at the margins. They can’t just ‘do that’ without putting themselves at substantial risk.”
As Mr. Hart moves confidently from one aspect of the drug problem to another, he invariably circles back to his main theme: freedom. The panoply of laws, crimes, prisons and deaths that surround drugs is a shadow over all Americans and would be reduced or eliminated by legalization, he said.
“The way we are doing things currently is inconsistent with the persons we say we are,” he said. “We say we’re the freest nation in the world, and nothing could be further from the truth. We say we guarantee people life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we allow them to live life as they see fit. That is simply not true. And the drug example is a perfect example of how our practices are inconsistent with our promises.”
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