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Is federal drug policy scientific, or even rational? Expert says no

"We haven't had an adult conversation about drugs in America," says Columbia University neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart, who has studied the effects of controlled substances, especially methamphetamine, on brain activity for more than a decade. His university of biography portrays an award-winning scientist and professor who is widely recognized for his outstanding contributions to the field of neuropsychopharmacology.

He is also a man with real-world experience -- as a former drug user and dealer who went straight, only to see his son serve time for a drug offense. That dual perspective gives him unusual insight into the realities of drug abuse -- and why policymakers make involvement with some substances a federal drug crime, but not other, similar drugs.

Recently, the Fox program "The Independents" interviewed Hart about his views, as outlined in his book, "High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society." The book should be well-worth reading.

In 2005, the Office of National Drug Control Policy asked Hart to join other methamphetamine experts in a discussion of what was truly known about the drug. Hart presented peer-reviewed, scientific proof that meth is relatively unremarkable when compared to legal stimulants like Adderall. Otherwise-healthy individuals taking it experienced no cognitive disruption or violent impulses, and only moderate euphoria.

The other experts were frantic. They insisted meth was unlike any previously-known substance. Users, they said gained such super-human strength that Taser strikes didn't affect them. They became unthinkably violent. Addiction was rampant.

Hart responded with history: the very same rumors have long been used to create public scares about everything from "demon rum" and marijuana to crack cocaine and "bath salts." As early as 1914, African-American cocaine users were demonized as hyper-violent and possessing super-human strength. Hart contends that historically, such drug scares have used to attack despised groups by criminalizing their favored substances in order to expose them to prosecution.

The science never ends up backing up the drug scares, and it doesn't appear to back up the current rumors about meth. "Methamphetamine today is associated with despised groups," Hart points out. "'Poor white trash.' Gay folks. That sort of thing."

Hart doesn't mean to say that meth or other drugs aren't potentially dangerous -- they can be. The point is that we to have that adult conversation about which, if any, psychoactive substances justify prosecution and imprisonment for a drug crime.

Sources: 

  • Reason.com's Hit & Run blog, "Tonight on The Independents: You're on Drugs," Matt Welch, Feb. 21, 2014
  • Reason.com, "The Scientific Case for Decriminalization," Dr. Carl Hart, edited presentation transcript, Oct. 10, 2013

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