photos: Carl Hart made the case for why we need to rework our approach to drug addiction in a public lecture at SFU Woodward's in June. Photo: Graham Case / Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

Are Drug Laws Racist?

Carl Hart asks us to rethink drug addiction.

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Carl Hart wants us to think differently about drugs.

A neuropsychopharmacologist from Columbia University—meaning he’s a researcher and teacher on the effects of drugs on human brains—Hart has dedicated his work to dispelling myths about illegal drug use.

He thinks all drugs should be legal, and he’s spent the last year and a half on a book tour sharing his views with audiences around the world. He recently authored High Price, a part-memoir and part-neuroscience text that he has been touring in support of over the past year and a half.

“Eighty-to-ninety per cent of the people who use drugs are like me,” Hart told his audience at Simon Fraser University’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts last month.

“They pay taxes, they take care of their families, they are responsible members of our society.”

Gesturing to the screen behind him, which displayed images of U.S. presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, he said, “In some cases, they even become president of the United States.”

Addiction rates do vary: nine per cent of marijuana users, 15 to 20 per cent of cocaine and crack cocaine users, and roughly one-quarter of heroin users will become addicted. Yet legal drugs like alcohol and cigarettes have addiction rates of 10 to 15 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively.

So why do we hand down harsh criminal penalties for using crack when legal cigarettes have a greater risk of dependency? Hart boils it down to racism.

“Selective enforcement of these drugs laws, in effect, serve as a tool to marginalize black males, especially, and keep them in this vicious cycle of incarceration and isolation from mainstream society,” he told the audience.

A discriminatory system

Hart didn’t come by this knowledge solely from his research in Columbia’s labs. He grew up poor in a Miami ghetto, and as a youth carried a gun, sold drugs, used drugs, and watched as the same life path he was fixed to follow led so many of his loved ones to ruin.

“Eventually I decided to get serious about my education. Earning a PhD in neuroscience kind of changed my trajectory,” he said wryly.

An American, Hart focuses his research on U.S. drug crime statistics, including sentencing for crack cocaine possession that is 18 times the sentencing for cocaine, even though they’re the same drug.

It used to be worse. From 1986 until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, sentencing for crack cocaine in the United States was 100 times that of cocaine possession. If you were caught with 5mg of crack, you received the same sentence as someone caught with 500mg of cocaine.

“We have enforced this law such that black people in the United States represent 80 per cent of those people arrested under those laws,” said Hart, noting there is no difference in cocaine use between black and white U.S. populations.

Don’t act so smug, Canada

There are parallels to Canada’s high indigenous incarceration rate: over a quarter of provincial and territorial prisoners and one-fifth of federal prisoners are indigenous. Yet they make up less than five per cent of Canada’s overall population.

Members of the indigenous community also use some drugs more than other parts of the Canadian population. While First Nations and Inuit people have fewer drinkers than Canadians overall—there is no Metis drinking data—both groups have higher rates of heavy drinkers than the rest of Canada. Cannabis usage is also above the national average.

Heavy drug use among indigenous people is connected to their higher rates of homelessness, child welfare interventions, poverty, and suicide compared to the rest of Canada. All of these issues are linked to the colonial violence indigenous people have endured across generations in Canada.

Indigenous people are also over-represented in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood—notorious nationwide for its high levels of poverty and public drug use. On the surface, Hart said many of the neighbourhood residents’ poor physical and mental health make them the poster children for the anti-drug campaign, but he sees something else going on.

“If you look at those folks really carefully, you can see that many folks have psychiatric illness that are not being attended to,” he said. “They have a multitude of problems. But it’s just simply easy to say that it’s [their intersecting social and economic issues are] because of their drug use.”

With the War on Drugs crowd, no debate

Hart doesn’t bother to debate his findings with the anti-drug crowd. “I have to make sure I don't engage in conversations with people who don't abide by the rules of evidence,” is one of his best-known quotes.

In conversation with Megaphone the day after his Vancouver talk, Hart said he prefers to talk to people open to listening.

“Once they have the information, then they can put pressure on their legislators,” he said. “And that’s my strategy, to basically educate folks. Help people to understand.”

Once they understand, Hart lays out how they can help, from knowing the science behind his work and engaging in factual debates, to holding yourself and others accountable for racism.

Perhaps the most difficult ask is coming out as a drug user to help dispel the myth that only addicts use illegal drugs. While Hart is open about his drug use, he told Megaphone in his case it helps that he’s proven himself as an award-winning Columbia University professor.

“For [other] people when they think about coming out of the closet, they may have to do it on a smaller scale, like to friends and relatives,” he said.

Hart acknowledges it isn’t an easy path to tread: he’s lost friends and research funding due to his views. His book tour has been the main source of research funding as of late. But these are sacrifices he’s willing to make to change society’s attitude and policies towards drugs.

“The focus shouldn’t be on whether you are using drugs, but it should be on your deeds,” Hart told his Vancouver audience before they erupted into their second standing ovation of the night.

“I want to make sure people are good people.”

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