As you leaf through the first few pages of Dr. Carl L. Hart’s book Drug Use for Grownups, you come across a quote from the writer and social critic James Baldwin. It says: “If you want to get to the heart of the dope problem, legalize it…. [Prohibition is] a law, in operation, that can only be used against the poor.”
Baldwin, of course, is right.
Middle class and wealthy communities would never for a second allow the level of policing that takes place in poor areas in pursuit of illicit substances. But that’s besides the point: Police wouldn’t find much to crack down on. People in wealthier communities can snort, shoot, swallow, and smoke their drugs of choice in the comfort of their own homes without anyone noticing — unless it leads to some sort of disturbance or domestic abuse. If they’re discreet, the Fourth Amendment will, most likely, protect them. They have little to worry about.
But what if Baldwin is wrong in another way. What if there isn’t really a “dope problem”? Ever since I was a boy, I’ve been bombarded with the idea that drugs are bad — even evil. One puff of a joint could make my life go into a tailspin, as marijuana, I was told, would led to harder drugs like cocaine or acid or heroin. Soon enough, I’d be in a grimy bathroom stall — like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries — unbuckling a belt in return for a fix. (The drug war propagandists are not a subtle bunch.)
Dr. Hart, a professor of psychology at Columbia University and a research scientist, has a simple retort to all the fear-mongering around drugs that pervades our culture: bullshit. He should know. For a long time, Hart was a “drug abuse” scientist (his quotation marks). For two decades, Hart gave thousands of doses of drugs — including hard drugs like crack cocaine — to many different kinds of people to study their effects and understand drug addiction.
Twenty years later, Hart has abandoned what he once believed was “God’s work.” Instead, he’s now riddled with “skepticism, cynicism, and disillusionment.” He admits that he “was too busy for too long being a soldier in the regime.” Now he’s not only a deserter of the drug war, he’s been a recreational user of heroin himself for five years. And he has a message for all responsible drug users: come out of the closet and acknowledge you use drugs responsibly to help lessen the stigma and stereotypes associated with it.
Empowering the state … one lie and stereotype at a time
Most Americans believe in fantasies about drug users. They’re lazy, poor, immoral, and irresponsible, surrounded by a haze of pot smoke, covered in Cheetos dust. But Hart’s research and lived experience present another picture about the typical drug user: “a responsible professional who happens to use drugs in his pursuit of happiness.”
Remember those three words — pursuit of happiness. They matter to Hart, which is why he follows that belief to its logical political conclusion, reminding the reader that “no benevolent government should forbid autonomous adults from altering their consciousness, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.”
Instead, we have officials at all levels of government who believe they have the right to stop free individuals from putting certain substances voluntarily into their own bodies. They also have the audacity to claim they’re doing this for our own good, even as armed agents of the state kick down people’s doors; ransack their homes; kill their dogs; harass, intimidate, and beat them; and kidnap them and throw them in cages — all to bust someone for a little coke or weed or ecstasy. And they’re the lucky ones. People lose their lives to police violence because they buy, use, or sell drugs or, in the case of someone like Breonna Taylor, consort with those who do.
Savvier drug war proponents will no doubt bring up the violence that permeates the drug trade. But that’s drivel, too. Prohibition creates the violence for two primary reasons. It attracts people who don’t care about the law, and since the trade is illegal, there is no peaceful process of adjudicating disputes. The law of the streets reigns supreme instead.
The drug war also carries with it blatant racial and class discrimination. Back in the 1980s, there was the crack “epidemic.” The problem was cast almost exclusively as a poor black problem. The crackdown was draconian. Congress passed legislation — including 16 of 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus — making penalties regarding crack cocaine possession 100 times more severe than cocaine powder possession. Much of the moral panic surrounding crack cocaine had to do with the perception of the users and sellers of the drug, writes Hart: “black, young, and menacing,” even though most crack users were white. The law decimated poor black communities. Ninety percent of the people convicted of crack charges were black.
These disparities persist today with a drug that has barely any deleterious effects on adults: weed. White, black, and Hispanic people all use marijuana at relatively the same rates. Yet when you drive down into the data of state arrests, writes Hart, “black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts.” At the federal level, Hispanic people make up three out of four marijuana arrests.
The final argument of the drug warriors is usually addiction. I encounter this all the time when I argue for complete and total legalization of all drugs. Too many Americans think addiction is inevitable. Just as people can drink alcohol (which is a drug) without becoming an alcoholic, people can use a wide variety of drugs without ever becoming an addict. According to Hart, 70 percent of drug users are not addicts, with addict defined as someone distressed by their drug use who experiences real bad life outcomes due to their substance use. And only 10 to 30 percent of people who use hard drugs like heroin and meth become addicted.
When it comes to drugs and drug addiction, the American people have fallen for false narratives — fairy tales that empower the bullies and busy-bodies and devastate lives through stigma, job loss, and incarceration.
Don’t call the drug war a failure
The U.S. government each year spends about $35 billion on its drug war. That’s up from $1.5 billion in 1981. If you’re like me, you’d conclude that the drug war is one big fiasco.
But Hart wants you to be more cynical, and I think he’s right. The perverse incentives of the drug war keep it going year in and year out.
A vital but unstated aim of the drug war is to shore up the budgets of law-enforcement and prison authorities, as well as such parasitic organizations as drug-treatment centers and urine drug-testing outfits. Law enforcement entities receive the bulk of federal drug-war dollars.
Then these same law enforcement agencies descend on poor and minority communities. Inevitably, the people in these communities — particularly the young — feel like they live in occupied territory (imagine being stopped and frisked regularly), and violence naturally erupts between police and the people they’re supposedly sworn to serve and protect. The drug war isn’t responsible for all the tension between police and certain communities, but it definitely plays an outsized role.
As Hart nicely summarizes: “In essence, the war on drugs is not a war on drugs; it’s a war on us.” (Emphasis his.)
Let people be free
Much of Drug Use for Grownups, however, isn’t about the harms and hypocrisies of the drug war. Rather, it’s Hart discussing the science of drugs and the pleasant effects of mind-altering substances when used responsibly. He also dispels ridiculous drug myths, like marijuana makes people violent — a howler if you’ve ever smoked weed or hung around people who do.
But all in all, Hart’s book is a libertarian manifesto to let people consume the substances they want in pursuit of their own happiness — however fleeting it may be. But he also wants to be a whistleblower of sorts, communicating far and wide what his scientific research found despite the horror stories and propaganda and his own biases: drug use is overwhelmingly positive.
“It didn’t matter whether the drug in question was cannabis, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, or psilocybin,” Hart writes in the book’s epilogue, “Overwhelmingly, consumers expressed feeling more altruistic, empathetic, euphoric, focused, grateful, and tranquil. They also experienced enhanced social interactions, a greater sense of purpose and meaning, and increased sexual intimacy and performance.” In other words, hook me up.
But in all seriousness, Hart’s book is a necessary tonic in these strange hyperbolic times. It asks us to live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence and its assertion that we all have unalienable rights, including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that governments are instituted to “secure these rights.” Which immediately raises the question: If we Americans believe this, then why, asks Hart, “is our current government arresting one million Americans each year for possessing drugs?”
And the answer is because we let it, though that may be changing. Fifteen states have legalized recreational marijuana, while 35 states have legalized medical marijuana. Washington, D.C., just decriminalized psilocybin last November, and Oregon voters decriminalized the possession of even small amounts of hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, and meth.
The culture is changing, but not fast enough for far too many Americans.
One in five incarcerated people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, are there because of nonviolent drug offenses. When they get out, they will face discrimination in employment and the stigma of having been inside. Poor and minority neighborhoods still face over-policing as law enforcement blankets their communities in search of people peacefully buying and selling substances that give them pleasure and relief from the stresses of life. And to rachet up the insanity even more, prohibition will continue to empower the most violent and ruthless people in these communities, guaranteeing bloodshed.
But there are simple solutions to this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into: legalize all drugs and heed the advice, applicable in most situations, of American anarchist Benjamin Tucker and “mind your own business.” It’s a prescription Dr. Hart would emphatically endorse.
This article was originally published in the October 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.