Drug use for Grown-ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear by Dr. Carl Hart. Photo credit: Penguin Random House.
According to the world-renowned intellectual Dr. Carl Hart, using drugs is a healthy part of some adult’s lives, and they are happier because of them.
Hart is a neuroscientist, tenured psychology professor at Columbia University, author, and drug-reform activist. His previous books include High Price, and Drugs, Society and Human Behavior — along with dozens of academic publications.
Hart is a proponent for humane, science-based drug legislation that corresponds with the basic American conception of freedom. His primary claim is that drugs can be (and for many people, are) vehicles for joy, pleasure, and introspection.
Hart takes issue with American drug laws. They are in direct opposition to his stance on freedom and liberty. Drug laws, he demonstrates, are not guided by science. Instead, they are informed by sometimes well-intentioned paternalism and other times by outright propaganda and racism.
In his newest book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, he thoroughly details that fundamental contention. Specifically, Hart criticizes modern-American drug policy by looking at the formation of drug laws and their social results, and by providing the science of drug-usage and addiction. He also divulges his own experiences with drugs to combat current conceptions of drug use.
Drugs for Law-Abiding, Responsible Adults
Hart’s position in the book is best defined by placing it in direct opposition to two other views on drugs and drug-reform.
The first is the mainstream progressive notion that drugs should be decriminalized. Included in this notion is the belief that officials should take a less punitive approach to drug-users and lessen incarceration rates.
Hart partially agrees with this position. He states that decriminalization is, “a step in the right direction.” However he also makes a radical departure from the progressive mainstream approach. Drug use should not be penalized, he adds, and individuals should have the legal freedom to ingest substances as a fundamental part of their liberty. Consequently, he believes that drug consumption should be de-stigmatized.
Simply put, Dr. Hart explains that adults have a right to alter their consciousness using psychoactive substances.
To clearly make this point, he repeatedly references the Declaration of Independence. “This document guarantees each citizen three birthrights — ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’— that can’t be taken away. It proclaims each person’s right to live as they see fit…the declaration defends an individual’s rights to consume drugs,” he writes.
The second view that is in direct opposition to his own is the belief that drugs are counter-cultural; that drug-use automatically places one on the margins of society.
He constructs the entire book in contrast to this belief. Further, Hart asserts that many responsible, tax-paying, law-abiding, job-having, child-caring adults consume various substances and still succeed in their lives.
He insists that drug-use itself does not render someone irresponsible. Instead, the totality of one’s actions, or one’s ability to successfully maintain their life and fulfill their obligations and duties, defines someone as a responsible adult.
A Partial Autobiography
Hart uses himself as an example of a drug-using responsible adult:
“I am now entering my fifth year as a regular heroin user. I do not have a drug use problem. Never have. Each day, I meet my parental, personal, and professional responsibilities. I pay my taxes, serve as a volunteer in my community on a regular basis, and contribute to the global community as an informed and engaged citizen. I am better for my drug use.”
Throughout the book, Hart takes readers on a journey and explains how he developed this perspective. He begins with his childhood in Miami, and explains that he blamed drug use for the poverty his neighborhood experienced. As a young graduate student, he maintained the belief that drugs are detrimental and addictive. Later, he details his own contradictory beliefs, which his graduate research presented. Finally, he presents his current stance on drug-use after 25 years of research.
His research forced him to confront facts. One of those facts is that only 10-30% of drug users (including ‘hard drugs’) are addicts. As a result, his views evolved.
For example, he no longer believes that drug use caused the poverty in his childhood neighborhood. Instead, he recognizes that it is the result of more complex social issues including structural racism and corruption.
Drug Use and Personal Liberty
Hart previously told the New York Times that he takes issue with the media’s marginalization of the drug-use debate. Some are quick to focus on cannabis, but not other drugs like PCP, he says.
Furthermore, coverage has mainly centered around Hart’s admission of his drug-use, particularly his heroin use. However, some reporters omit his explanation of what a ‘responsible adult’ means and his stance on freedom.
The question isn’t if one agrees with recreational use of opiates. It is not about whether or not one has a personal conviction against substance use, either. Instead, the question he poses is — should someone be able to engage in an activity that doesn’t infringe on another’s capacity to freely and happily live their lives?
But there are some caveats. Hart is a public figure and a trained neuroscientist with access to a purer drug supply. He also has access to drug-testing technology that ordinary people simply do not have.
As such, the drugs that Hart has access to are much safer.
As Hart clearly states, “today, illicit heroin is frequently adulterated with stronger opiates like fentanyl and its analogs. The adulterants are often much more dangerous than the heroin itself.”
This is why he advocates for national drug testing programs. “One practical solution [to the opioid crisis] is to make drug-safety testing services widely available,” Hart explains in his book.
This type of legal access and regulation, he further argues, would save lives by supplying non-contaminated substances. Users would know exactly what they are ingesting. It would also be a less punitive approach to drug use.
Hart’s Approach to Drug Reform
Dr. Hart does not encourage the use of licit or illicit drugs. Nor does he state that any substance is entirely safe. Rather, he believes that adults have the inherent right to engage in a potentially dangerous activity, since almost every activity comes with some degree of danger.
Dr. Hart is imploring policy makers to begin moving in the correct direction. This approach would save lives, keep millions of people out of jail for innocuous offences, and would enable people to have autonomy over their choices.