By Douglas Capraro
At a conference in Atlanta this week, President Barack Obama stated that drug use should be seen as a “public health problem and not a criminal problem.” For many people, this may seem like a step in the right direction. According to Columbia University professor and neuropsychopharamacologist Carl Hart, Ph.D., however, Obama’s got it completely wrong.
Hart appeared at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) earlier this month to give a talk called “Mythbusting the Drug War With Science”. In this this lecture, he made a much different argument for treating drug use and addiction. Instead of focusing on treating drug use from the perspective of health and medicine, he believes that harm reduction should be the primary focus. Although this runs contrary to the increasing number of people who have been urging lawmakers to treat addiction as a disease, his reasoning is simple.
Hart’s main argument is that the vast majority of drug users are not actually addicted to drugs. He elaborates by saying, “When I say drug abuse and drug addiction, I’m thinking of people whose psycho-social functioning is disrupted.” Contrary to popular belief, the number of drug users who fit this description only accounts for one third of the people who use drugs. Therefore, medical treatment does not help those other two thirds of the population that use drugs but are not addicted.
This recent push in favor of treatment over criminalization, he says, is simply due to the kind of sensationalized misinformation most people have been taught about addiction. What individuals really need to help curb the negative impacts of drug use is education. Here is one example Hart brought up during his lecture to help illustrate this point:
“Now, if we are concerned about overdose deaths, we need to know how these people are dying. The vast majority [75 percent] of people who die from a heroin-related overdose do so because they combine it with another sedative, like alcohol or benzodiazepines….The public health education message is simple: If you’re going to use heroin or another opioid, don’t combine it with another sedative.”
He also points to a widely referenced study from the 1980s, immortalized in this famous drug PSA. During this study, rats were kept in cages and given the choice of pressing a lever to receive cocaine. The rats eventually became addicted and died after ignoring all of its other physical needs. According to Hart, studies like these are part of the kind of misinformation people are taught about drugs.
Other studies, he says, have been conducted where rats are exposed to other kinds of stimuli and as a result, the rats end up refusing to take the cocaine. Hart explains: ”When you enrich the rat’s environment such that you provide something like a sweet drink, or a sexually receptive mate, or some other alternative, the rat doesn’t repeatedly take cocaine. In fact, it’s difficult to get the rat to self-administer or press the lever to take cocaine if you provide the rat with food!”
This is not to say that treatment does not and would not work for those who are actually addicted to drugs. But with the drug epidemic largely centered around the issue of drug-related deaths, Hart makes a convincing point about the need for education over treatment. He explains that, “Politicians today, whether Republican or Democrat, are comfortable with saying that we don’t want to send people to jail for drugs; we will offer them treatment.” However, “the vast majority of people don’t need treatment. We need better public education, and more realistic education. And we’re not getting that.”
To find out more about Prof. Carl Hart’s research on drugs and addiction, check out his book “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society“. Also, make sure you watch his TED Talk “Let’s Stop Abusing Drug Users“.