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In 2012, I published a review of all the scientific literature that was relevant for cognitive performance and for brain imaging. What I concluded was the interpretations in the scientific literature were wildly overstated in terms of the effects of methamphetamine on cognition, in terms of the effects of methamphetamine on brain structure. My paper was published in Neuropsychopharmacology in 2012.
So given that our drug policy is based on these faulty assumptions, one of the things that I call for in High Price is that we should rethink and reevaluate how we are regulating drugs like methamphetamine, drugs like heroin, drugs like cocaine, and so forth. And the main reason I call for this reevaluation is this: Each year in this country we arrest 1.5 million people for drug-related violations. More than 80 percent of them are for simple possession. If our assumptions that these drugs are so dangerous that we have to go after them with such ferocity are faulty, I think that we could decrease the blemishes that we put on people's records by decriminalizing drugs rather than the approach that we're taking.
When you call for decriminalization in this country you have to provide some education, because the country is quite ignorant about drug policy, about drugs in general. Decriminalization is not legalization. Legalization is what we're doing with alcohol. If you're 21 or older, you can purchase alcohol without fear of being prosecuted. You can sell alcohol legally. With decriminalization, you cannot sell drugs. They still remain illegal. Possession also remains illegal, but you can no longer get a criminal record from possessing a drug. Instead it would be treated like we treat traffic violations. That way we decrease the likelihood of putting blemishes on people's records and enhance the likelihood that they will be able to get jobs and contribute to society. When we think about the guys who have occupied the White House-President Obama, President Bush, President Clinton-all three of those guys used illegal drugs in their youth. If they would have been caught, they would've gotten felony charges and probably would not have been allowed to make the contributions that they have made to our country.
One of the things that happens in this discussion is that experts are very comfortable talking on areas in which they have limited expertise. I'm not one of them, and I have limited expertise in markets. My expertise is the effects of drugs on people. But what I can tell you is why I favor decriminalization rather than legalization: Legalization will provide the opportunity for people to exaggerate the extent of the harms caused by drugs. I know that for a fact. Because the country is so ignorant about what drugs actually do, we should decriminalize and then have a corresponding increase in education about these drugs. Realistic education.
Since I've been talking about methamphetamine: Methamphetamine causes people to have to have increased heart rate, blood pressure, and so forth. The number one killer in the United States is heart disease. So if you have cardiac issues, the public health message will be blared: "Don't take methamphetamine!" Another issue is that methamphetamine is outstanding at keeping people awake. Chronic sleep loss associated with all kinds of cancers, associated with psychiatric illness, the public health message would be: "Please don't take methamphetamine near bedtime! Get sleep!" This is realistic education to help people. That's why my focus has been on decriminalization rather than legalization. I think the country's too ignorant, we haven't had an adult conversation about drugs, and I'm trying to do that with High Price.
reason: Are all these stories just totally fabricated out of thin air? Because I recall way back when it was "demon weed" about marijuana and "devil rum."
Hart: I don't want to leave you with the impression that psychoactive drugs don't have potentially powerful mind-altering effects. Because they do.
[But] in many of the stories told about those drugs like marijuana in the 1930s, the demon rum, and that sort of thing, drugs serve as convenient tools to further demonize groups that we don't like. We associated marijuana with those Mexicans who are taking jobs from the good folks in Texas. Black folks are taking jobs from white folks in the South, we don't like them. So we associate drugs that are not used widely in the society with a specific despised group.
Today it's a hell of a lot more difficult to demonize marijuana as we once did. Fast-forward to the 1980s. A number of people had used powdered cocaine. Hollywood was really supporting that industry. But there was not the same number of people using crack cocaine. So now you can say: This is a new form of cocaine. It's not the cocaine that you're using, my man. This is a new form. And so it becomes associated with these people, even though black people didn't use crack cocaine at higher rates than white folks. But certainly based on the media portrayal it was easier to get that impression.
Methamphetamine today is associated with despised groups. "Poor white trash." Gay folks. That sort of thing. A relatively small number of people use methamphetamine so you can vilify those groups. But it's a hell of a lot more difficult to vilify marijuana today.
reason: What does the data show on addiction? Would decriminalization help that process of getting off of addiction? Or is addiction exaggerated in general?
Hart: The vast majority of people who use these substances are not addicted. Maybe 10 to 20 percent are, but 80 to 90 percent are not. Most of our attention, when we talk about these drugs, is focused on the small pathological group. I focus more on the 80 to 90 percent.
I hope that we would redistribute the money that law enforcement currently gets. We spend $26 billion a year on dealing with this drug problem. If we redistribute the money into treatment and treatment research it would enhance treatment. We currently have some pretty good treatments to treat substance abuse. It's just that we also have a lot of quacks out there.
We also have to realize that, like law enforcement, the treatment industry has a stake in our current approach. It's either jail or treatment. [But that] doesn't make any sense when the vast majority of people don't need either.
reason: Does the government make it difficult for people to study illegal drugs?