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Get the Science Right: How Bad are Drugs, Really?

Get the Science Right: How Bad are Drugs, Really?

Scientist bucks trends to call all drugs “bad”

psychology, drugs, Carl Hart, Columbia UniversityDrugs lead to addiction, and addiction can lead people to a life of crime. Therefore, all drugs should be criminalized and users put in jail. That’s the general theory not only of drug laws in countries like the U.S., but also the way research on drugs is carried out, says Carl Hart, a psychologist at Columbia University in New York. According to Hall, that approach is totally wrong.

What does Hart think?
Hart believes that an abnormal amount of hype exists about the dangers of drugs themselves. While he doesn’t call them safe, he suggests that focusing on why and how people become addicted (instead of focusing just on drugs themselves) is a more valuable area for research.

Do scientists say drugs are all bad?
The problem is that scientists aren’t allowed to study drug use and behavior to its fullest extent, Hart says. He has published papers reviewing past research, and found scientists who focused too much on toxicity reactions (as opposed to more “normal” use), or tended to label any difference in cognitive ability as “abnormal.” In a paper in Neurosychopharmacology, for example, Hart found that cognitive function among methamphetamine users pretty much was normal, but many researchers instead pointed to cognitive aberrations among drug users that could have been nothing more than chance.

Does Hart think drugs are bad?
No. But addiction is bad. He has maintained that most drug users are not addicts, and blames the media, governments and police departments for frightening people into believing that only outlawing drugs will prevent the problems caused by addictions. Hart has recently published a book, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journal of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know about Drugs and Society, that challenges the “status quo” of assumptions about substance abuse (and normal use). He feels that the United States should follow the lead of some European countries (like Portugal and The Netherlands) in decriminalizing drugs.

How is this working out for him?
Not well. He told the Huffington Post recently that two major research grants to his lab expired recently, and he hasn’t received additional research funding. He claims that one grant reviewer asked him “what are you trying to do, show that drugs are good?”

What has he found about addictive behavior and drug use?
One interesting study published last fall looked at drug use among black prison inmates in New York. Since drug use is not allowed in prisons (but many are imprisoned on drug charges), he was not permitted to ask the inmates directly about drug use. However, he did find that drug use was rampant, and that the prison system may offer the first opportunity for addiction treatment for many of these inmates. So, he may be looking not at how drugs cause harm, but how public health measures can make sure addiction isn’t what keeps people coming to jail.

Sources: Huffington Post, Columbia University

Rowell TL, Wu E, Hart CL, Haile R, & El-Bassel N (2012). Predictors of drug use in prison among incarcerated Black men. The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse, 38 (6), 593-7 PMID: 22746253

Hart CL, Marvin CB, Silver R, & Smith EE (2012). Is cognitive functioning impaired in methamphetamine users? A critical review. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 37 (3), 586-608 PMID: 22089317

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2 Comments

  • joel
    June 28, 2013, 05:34

    I have yet to find an article like this one in the fact that it isn’t a battle of black or white – that drugs are the devil, or that drugs are good for you. These two are the only things I have heard, and it seems to be split between stereotypes of people who say them as well. But for scientist to step forward to say drugs aren’t the problem but the addictions are is novel. What I am interested in is the co-relation between stress and drugs and furthermore addiction. Starting with the overwhelming alarm of stress and the potential to ruin emotional state, appetite, as well as motivation to live a normal life, drugs are there to calm and fix the real world. Maybe what is addictive to drug users is the escape from the fast paced life…..stress. Hopefully Carl will get the opportunity to stretch this theory and get the advance to start his research.

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