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My heart leaped up as if I’d beheld a rainbow. The War on Drugs is not a Failure is a point a few under-the-radar journalists have been trying to make for years; it took Professor Hart to make it in the New York Times. (No news achieves “critical mass” in the US until it appears in the Times, Alex Cockburn observed. Even in this twittery era, it’s still the elite’s newspaper of record.)
Gone are the days when a hack writer could request and get review copies from book publishers. Begrudgingly, I paid online for “Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear” (Penguin, $28). While waiting for it, I emailed the Review a letter I knew they wouldn’t run:
In “Drug Use for Grown-Ups,” I learn from Casey Schwartz’s review, Carl Hart asks: what’s wrong with being a regular heroin user?
Her review is favorable, except for: “Hart’s writing can turn from passionate and moral to what feels like score-settling, undercutting the tenor of his narrative.”
I ask: what’s wrong with score-settling?
In 2011, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, explicitly and forcefully urged his followers to always describe the War on Drugs as a failure. (DPA would pay hundreds of activists to attend an annual conference at which Nadelmann laid out the party line.) Though supposedly a liberal, Nadelmann was a control freak, very strict about reformers “staying on message.” And because almost all activists and politicians craved some of the funding he doled out on behalf of George Soros (about $6 million annually), they made a mantra of “the failed war on drugs” in their speeches and blog posts. Google that awkward phrase to see how successful Nadelmann’s PR campaign has been.
I don’t know which chemicals are released in which parts of the brain, but a delicious feeling results when you find yourself in agreement with someone who has been observing the same scene from a completely different angle. Civilians who opposed US intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s will remember how affirming it was to see Master Sergeant Don Duncan, the most highly decorated enlisted man in the US Army, saying “I quit!” on the cover of Ramparts.
Hart, 54, was raised by his mother and her mother in the Black ghetto of Miami. He has close relatives in prison. He made his getaway by enlisting in the Air Force. He got a BA from the University of Maryland and a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Wyoming. He chose neuroscience, he says, because “It was clear to me that the poverty and crime in the resource-poor community from which I came was a direct result of recreational drug use and addiction. I reasoned that if I could stop people from taking drugs, especially by fixing their broken brains, I could fix the poverty and crime in my community.”
Columbia hired him as an associate professor of psychology in 1999. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) gave him millions in grant money. The university granted him tenure with alacrity. And all the while Hart considered illicit drug use harmful to the users and devastating for the Black community. His own research findings and observations over the course of a decade would lead him to reconsider. The book is dedicated, “For Parker and countless other real niggers —who shielded me from the hit, making it possible for a hood counterfeit to become mainstream legit.”
In the prologue Hart quotes Jefferson and adds, “I recognize that Thomas Jefferson and other revered historical figures enslaved Black people. This was reprehensible even during their time. But the cruel hypocrisy of these individuals’ actions does not negate the noble ideals and vision articulated in their writings.”
The Declaration of Independence, Hart reminds us, defines “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” as the inalienable rights of US Americans. So why, he asks, “Is our government arresting hundreds of thousands of Americans each year for using drugs, for pursuing pleasure, for seeking happiness?” The rationale for prohibition, he explains, is the chance of use leading to addiction:
“The conversation about recreational drug use is hijacked by peddlers of pathology as if addiction is inevitable for everyone who takes drugs. It is not. 70% or more of drug users – whether they use alcohol, cocaine, prescription medications, or other drugs – do not meet the criteria for a drug addiction. Indeed, research shows repeatedly that such issues affect only 10 to 30 percent of those who use even the most stigmatize drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine. This observation highlights two important points. The first is society’s flagrant, disproportionate focus on addiction when discussing drugs. Addiction represents a minority of drug affects, but it receives almost all the attention, certainly the media attention… Imagine if you were interested in learning more about cars or driving and could only find information about car crashes or information about how to repair a car after a crash. That would be ridiculous.”
Hart has dreadlocks and is handsome as any rock star. It’s hardly surprising that reviews of “Drug Use for Grown-Ups” focus on his first-person revelations. “I am now entering my fifth year as a regular heroin user,” he acknowledges. “I do not have a drug 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.” Hart doesn’t fix; he does lines of heroin (and ingests other opioids). He sees his use pattern as typical. “Research clearly shows that most heroin users are people who use the drug without problems, such as addiction; they are conscientious and upstanding citizens.”
The chapters on amphetamines, psychedelics, cannabis, cocaine, and “novel psychoactive substances” also combine Hart’s first-hand observations with the relevant published research, and are replete with citations that should satisfy the academic without breaking the flow of his very readable narrative.
Mitch Twists Hart’s Gist
Exactly as Carl Hart foresaw, “peddlers of pathology” are raising the specter of addiction in an attempt to discredit his thesis. The February 7 Times Book Review ran a letter by Mitchell S. Rosenthal, owner of the Phoenix House chain of treatment centers, dissing Hart’s book and promoting his own business. In closing, Rosenthal wrote, astonishingly, “I agree with Hart that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed, but his war on the reality of addiction is far more dangerous.” Two weeks earlier the Times had run a review stating that Hart disputed the notion that the War on Drugs has been a failure. Rosenthal was “agreeing” with the opposite of Hart’s important point! You’d think an editor would have consulted the book itself to confirm that their reviewer had it right —she did—and then rejected Rosenthal’s letter or respectfully asked him to cut the shit.
Rosenthal’s letter was doubly duplicitous. By pretending to agree with Hart, the treatment magnate tries to come off as a reasonable, unprejudiced man, when in fact he is biased and self-serving. If and when there’s ever a decline in the number of US drug users mandated to get “treatment” by courts, employers, schools and others in position of authority, Mitch Rosenthal’s Phoenix House empire will lose revenue.
Pardon me while I settle a score. In the spring of 1996 the New Yorker assigned me to write a piece about Proposition 215, the ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for medical use in California. The piece was scheduled to run the week before the November 4 election or the week after. It was spiked at the last minute, according to my editor, Hendrik Hertzberg, at the urging of “Tina’s guru on drug issues, Mitch Rosenthal.” Tina Brown was the top editor at the NYer. Rosenthal’s Phoenix House had taken in millions of dollars thanks to marijuana prohibition. The Village Voice ran a much-shortened version of my Prop 215 piece on November 12 and the New Yorker sent a $3,000 ‘kill fee’ —a lot more than I’d ever been paid for magazine articles that actually got published.
“The Harm in ‘Harm Reduction’
“Nora is an accomplished researcher with hundreds of scientific articles published in some of the field’s most prestigious journals. She is best known, perhaps, for her fierce defense of the brain-disease model of drug addiction and her impatience with those who disagree with her… Many scientists who study drugs, including some at NIDA, routinely overstate the negative impact that recreational drug use has on the brain, and that she essentially ignores any beneficial effects drug use may have. But the scientists don’t dare share this perspective with her for fear of repercussions that might negatively impact their ability to obtain grant funding, among other professional perks, from her Institute. To put this in perspective, NIDA funds nearly 90% of the world research focused on the drugs discussed in this book. Nora is a kingmaker…”
“The current lopsided and negative presentation of drug affects on the brain (has) serious consequencesm” Hart observes. “Journalists write articles consistent with these half truths. Newspaper articles focus on negative outcomes. Films and public service announcements employ these distortions in their depictions of drug users.