"We haven't had an adult conversation about drugs in America," says neuroscientist Carl Hart. The Columbia University academic, known for his experiments tracking the brain activity of drug users, is trying to rectify that state of affairs with his new book, High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society (HarperCollins).
Hart, an associate professor of psychology, has both a personal and professional perspective on drugs. A former user and dealer, he's a featured character in Eugene Jarecki's anti-drug war documentary The House I Live In, which explores, among other things, Hart's relationship with his son Tobias, who recently served time on a drug charge. Hart's new book, which makes a case for decriminalization, is both a memoir and an exploration of the latest neuroscientific research on drug use.
Hart spoke at reason's Los Angeles office in June about meth, math, violence, and what science can tell us about drug policy. He also took questions from the audience. For video of the event, go to reason.com or scan the QR code on the previous page.
Carl Hart: This book is a hybrid of memoir, science book, and policy. What I'd like to talk about is the science that I've been doing and that other people have been doing with methamphetamine.
Back in 2005 I got a call from the Office of National Drug Control Policy asking me to participate in a roundtable of writers who were interested in writing stories about methamphetamine. They wanted their stories to be more realistic-they were writers for things like Law and Order, CSI, magazines, and so forth. At this roundtable the panelists were a U.S. assistant attorney, an undercover narcotics officer, an adult person who was addicted to methamphetamine, an adolescent who was addicted to methamphetamine, and myself. My role at the panel was to help participants understand where the science was at the time, what we knew from the empirical information.
Basically what I said was that we had tested relatively low oral doses in the laboratory, where we evaluated the effects of those doses of methamphetamine on cognitive performance, mood, heart rate, blood pressure, those sorts of things. My conclusions were that the drug was quite unremarkable. In fact, in people who are well-rested you didn't see much in terms of cognitive disruption, or you didn't see any. Those low doses produce some euphoria, but a moderate range of euphoria.
When I finished my presentation my fellow panelists were horrified. They were horrified because they had told stories about the horrors of methamphetamine that they saw in the natural ecology. They recounted stories of methamphetamine users developing superhuman strength. When someone was on methamphetamine, it was said, you had to increase the caliber of weapon; regular Tasers no longer worked with these individuals. Another story that was recounted was that methamphetamine was like no other drug that law enforcement had ever seen. This particular cop said he had more than twentysomething years experience on the force and had never seen anything like methamphetamine-and he had seen crack users and that sort of thing. This drug methamphetamine, he claimed, exerted unique pharmacological effects. Finally, when I challenged some of the claims that were being made, he turned to me and said: "Dr. Hart, when you see a parent cut the head of their child off and throw it at you then maybe perhaps you will become a believer."
I tried to explain that these types of stories, these anecdotes-particularly about drugs-weren't new. We had heard them before. The stories about drug users developing superhuman strength, the stories about some new drug being like no other drug we've ever seen, and the stories about drugs causing this sort of wide range of cognitive disruption.
What I'd like to do is evaluate these three sorts of claims that seem to be pervasive in our history when it comes to drugs.
The first [is] these individuals developing superhuman strength. If you go back to The New York Times, for example, on February 8, 1914, what you find is a huge editorial: "Negro Cocaine Fiends Are New Southern Menace." In this piece the author argued that black people, when they have cocaine, they develop superhuman strength. So much so that southern police forces had to increase the caliber of their weapons. They moved from the .32 caliber weapon to the .38 caliber weapon because the .32 caliber weapon or bullets didn't affect black people on cocaine.
I know it sounds comical, but this was actually believed. And these things come back in new forms. Maybe a year and a half ago, two years ago, we heard about the guy in Miami who chewed the face off of another guy. It was said that the person was on bath salts and that bath salts cause such extreme effects that you get this kind of behavior. But when the toxicology was in, there were no bath salts in this person's system. The only thing that was in the person's system was THC, and we don't know when was the last time this person used THC. It could have been weeks.
The point is that these arguments, these claims, they are recycled generation after generation. And we laugh at some of them because of the language, but the language is tempered to fit the contemporary folk. It doesn't seem so outrageous if you're not a critical thinker. But of course most of these claims are just exaggeration.
The [second] claim is that methamphetamine produces unique cognitive effects. What I did, along with my Ph.D. student at the time, Matt Kirkpatrick, is that we ran a study in which we gave research participants-of course we passed all of the ethical requirements-intranasal methamphetamine at a low dose and a large dose on one day. It's all under blind conditions. We also gave participants dextroamphetamine, the active ingredient in Adderall, on other days. Of course a placebo was included.
We evaluated the effects of these drugs to see whether or not methamphetamine was unique compared to just regular amphetamine, because when you look at the chemical structure of these drugs, they look almost identical excepting for the meth group, which is on the methamphetamine structure. What we found was that the drugs produced nearly identical effects. They are the same drug. Methamphetamine is the same drug as the active ingredient in Adderall. The notion that methamphetamine produces unique effects is just simply not supported by evidence.
Finally I was interested in this notion that methamphetamine causes all of these cognitive disruptions. If you all have been paying attention in the country for the past 5 to 10 years you might know something about the Montana Meth Project, in which they make these slick advertisements-which they call "education"-about the dangers of methamphetamine. Oftentimes these advertisements indicate that methamphetamine causes widespread cognitive disruptions. And it seemed as though the scientific literature was in support of what was being said in these advertisements.