Chasing Happiness with the Heroin Professor
Since you last supped from the High Society cup, I’ve been reading a rather fascinating and somewhat scandalous book by Dr. Carl Hart, a neuroscientist and Columbia University Professor of psychology who also happens to be a newly out of the closet heroin user. Well, I’ll be blowed!
In Drug Use for Grown Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, Hart lays out his beliefs about drugs and drug policy in America, namely that all drugs should be legalized and that the majority of people can take drugs, even the “bad ones”, without bulldozing their lives. Hart didn’t always hold these beliefs, having begun his career determined to prove why drugs were to blame for the many social problems he observed growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami. Through scientific enquiry and personal experimentation, he has come to believe that perceived drug problems are more about “cultural, social and environmental factors such as racism, draconian drug laws, and diverting attention away from the real causes of crime and suffering” than about the drugs themselves.
The book’s biggest bombshell is Hart’s recreational use of heroin and other drugs, having come to it well into his 40s, a superstar neuroscientist and a husband and father. He maintains that his drug use does not impinge on his capacity to meet his hefty professional and personal obligations and even enhances his life in many ways. Alongside “vacation, sex, and the arts”, heroin is just another tool Hart uses to maintain “work-life balance”(!) You better believe the New York Post simply slurped up that quote.
Hart is the first tenured African American professor of science at an Ivy League university. Think what you will about his ideology and lifestyle, the integrity it takes to risk hard-won privilege and searing judgement to come forward as a drug user is undeniable. Perusing a Columbia University Reddit forum on Drug Use for Grown Ups, I came across a post by a Black student who voiced frustration that with so few tenured Black professors, Hart’s admission could reinforce negative stereotypes about members of their community being unprofessional or undeserving of power. Perhaps this student is implying that it would be better for Hart to not be a heroin user in the first place, a common and unsurprising judgement. Or, that if he must use drugs, he should have the decency to neatly bifurcate his personal and professional lives, as countless respectable, (white) professors, lawyers, educators, doctors, cops and members of the managerial class do. Yet, this “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality, stemming from legitimate fear of repercussions, is holding the United States back from a more productive and life-saving conversation about drugs.
Unsurprisingly, Hart’s revelations have been met with shock and moralizing by many. Much of the negative reception conflates Hart’s honesty about his own drug experiences and his belief that other “responsible grown ups” like him can integrate safe drug use into their lives, with a perceived promotion of heroin for the masses. Hart is not saying that everyone should use hard drugs, just that otherwise functional adults can and do use these substances responsibly and that this inconvenient truth needs to be integrated into the discourse. The book is explicitly not about addiction and discourages anyone with a history of mental illness or a recent trauma from trying drugs, as the risks are likely too great.
Hart effectively traces the racist history of drug laws and enforcement in the US, legitimizing the increasingly well-understood narrative that while people of different races and ethnicities use drugs at similar rates, people of color are disproportionately persecuted. A more surprising argument presented (and one that tripped me up) is that the opioid crisis has been overblown and misrepresented in the media. Considered alongside the Sackler family’s recent multi-billionaire dollar payout for their role in the epidemic and the proliferation of heartbreaking news stories about people who developed addictions after being prescribed drugs, I didn’t know what to make of this claim. Hart’s deal here is that the vast majority of deaths attributed to opioids concern illicit, contaminated street drugs or instances where drugs were mixed with alcohol or other sedatives and that “people are not dying because of opioids; they are dying because of ignorance.” Therefore, he calls for sweeping reforms including readily available drug testing and public education campaigns warning people not to mix alcohol and opioids, rather than a media narrative that presents opioids as a uniquely demonic substance that humans are powerless against.
Hart spills the scientific tea, accusing the world’s leading drug research institutions of bias. He doubles down on Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which according to Hart funds nearly 90% of worldwide drug research: “Many scientists who study drugs, including some at NIDA, believe that she routinely overstates the negative impact that recreational drug use has on the brain and essentially ignores any beneficial effects drug use may have. But these 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… Nora is a kingmaker. She is also seen by some as tyrannical.” This critique hits particularly hard in a cultural moment in which the general public is urged to “believe science” with religious fervor, as if it is somehow infallible to the systemic racism, sexism, politicization and egomania that pervade other institutions of power.
While Drug Use for Grown Ups is unapologetically not about addiction, at times Hart downplays or glosses over the pitfalls and serious risks of drug use. For example, he repeatedly likens drug use to driving, in that centering the conversation squarely on the risk of addiction is like talking about driving purely in relation to a potential crash. Hart claims, citing three studies, that less than 30% of people who use heroin develop an addiction. When you consider that over 3 in 10 people risk total decimation of their lives and even an untimely death, a comparison between heroin use and driving comes off as rather on the nose. Invoking the significance of the Declaration of Independence to the American psyche and way of life, Hart makes the case that unfettered drug experimentation is part of all Americans’ birthright to pursue happiness however they see fit, as long as their pursuits don’t impinge on anyone else’s ability to do the same. Yet, can he really claim that the 30% who chase pleasure through heroin then develop an addiction will not impinge on their loved one’s birthright to their own pursuit of happiness?
Elsewhere, in a gripe about artists who create devastating work about the pitfalls of drugs, Hart claims that writing a song about drugs doesn’t make one an expert on them. He continues, veering off into bizarre territory, “Nor should a person be deemed an authority on the drug simply because he used it in a pathological manner. It’s like saying that Donald Trump is a gynecologist because he once had a morbid predilection for grabbing women by the crotch without their permission.” Eek, is it though?
In such moments, Hart pushes his agenda with the same blindness he so despises in the anti-drug crusaders he’s taking on. Yet, society has been absorbing one-sided anti-drug rhetoric for so long that a smart and convincing enthusiast on the other side seems long overdue. I’ve heard many otherwise perfectly intelligent people claim that acid “leaves holes in your brain”. Perhaps, they’ll open their hearts to a reality in which a few lines of heroin or meth by the fireplace at the end of a long day may be the perfect way to achieve work-life balance… but only for so-called responsible grown ups.
Until next time. Xoxo