A US professor has accused researchers of overstating the harms of recreational drugs and admitted to regular heroin use. Have we let fearmongering dictate drug policy in New Zealand? By Andrew Anthony.
When New Zealanders narrowly voted last November against the legalisation of cannabis, it caused at least a temporary halt in the debate on liberalising drug laws. Given the closeness of the gap (just 2.3 percentage points), the issue is not going to go away. But it's unlikely that there will be much appetite for legalising all drugs any time soon.
That, however, is what a leading expert in the field of recreational drug research is calling for. Carl Hart, the Dirk Ziff professor of psychology at Columbia University, New York, would like to see heroin, cocaine, MDMA and crystal meth treated in a similar manner to how we treat alcohol. Not only that, but in his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing liberty in the land of fear, Hart admits to using a number of those drugs himself.
"I am now entering my fifth year as a regular heroin user," he writes, in what must be one of the most arresting sentences produced by an academic since Timothy Leary invited a generation to "turn on, tune in, drop out". The difference is that Leary had left Harvard when he uttered those words – about LSD – whereas Hart is still employed by Columbia.
Was he worried, I ask on a Zoom call to his home in New York, what the effect of such a confession might have on his career?
"It's possible I'll get some flak from my university, my employers," he says, all but shrugging his shoulders. "Such is life. Anything worth having, in my mind, there is risk attached to it. When the dust has cleared, my public record is there in the book and the evidence will exonerate me."
In any case, he says, American culture highlights the impact of people such as Martin Luther King Jnr and Rosa Parks because they struggled for their civil rights. Hart, who is black, sees drug use as a human right – the pursuit of happiness that is guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence. Coming clean about his own drug use is, for him, first and foremost a rejection of hypocrisy.
"I can live more honestly," he says. "I can look in the mirror. My children can have an example of what courage looks like in real time, not in history."
Race and the drug war
Hart wears long dreadlocks, which are not the traditional style of Ivy League professors, and behind him in his study is a photograph of Malcolm X. If Hart's primary argument is that the threat from all classes of drugs has been dramatically overstated, his book is also an examination of the racism that he believes has underpinned drug legislation and the criminal justice system in the US.
Black drug users have been disproportionately punished. For example, although most crack users in the 1990s were white, 90 per cent of those sentenced under severe anti-crack laws were black. In a similar fashion, Māori face three times as many arrests and prosecutions for possession of cannabis than the non-Māori population.
As Professor Papaarangi Reid, head of the department of Māori health at the University of Auckland, recently said: "We're particularly concerned that Māori have borne the brunt of biased enforcement."
In the US, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as their white counterparts. Hart, who grew up in a poor Miami neighbourhood, used to believe it was drugs that destroyed black communities. But as he entered academic life, following a spell in the US air force, he began hanging out with professional white friends, many of whom took drugs but nonetheless lived in pleasant, crime-free neighbourhoods.
He realised that it wasn't the drug use per se that harmed people but the context in which drugs were consumed. Yet even after he reached this conclusion, he continued to subscribe to the narrative that dominated drug research – namely that drugs were dangerous and unhealthy.
That's essentially the position held by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Nida), which Hart claims funds 90 per cent of the world's research on recreational drugs. Its director is Nora Volkow, of whom Hart is unapologetically scathing.
"Many scientists who study drugs," he writes, "including some at Nida, believe that she routinely overstates the negative effect that recreational drug use has on the brain and that she 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 affect their ability to obtain grant funding, among other professional perks, from her institute."
As part of his own research, Hart has spent many years conducting experiments in which volunteers take drugs such as marijuana and cocaine under laboratory conditions so that he can study their brain functioning. What he discovered, he writes, is that "most drug-use scenarios cause little or no harm and that some responsible drug-use scenarios are actually beneficial for human health and functioning".
However, he didn't advocate the wholesale legalisation of drugs and continued to focus his work on drug harm. Why?
"When you are incentivised to find a certain thing, you are blinded," he says. "I needed to keep my lab running to support these salaries."
It wasn't only the financial incentives that kept him orthodox, but also the intellectual fear of speaking out. As long as you toe the line, he says, there is a large machinery of support to prop up your perspective. But depart from that line and you have to spend all your time isolated and under attack, defending your position.
There are, of course, plenty of examples of drugs doing harm – from overdoses to addiction to the crime that often supports addiction. Hart doesn't dispute the fact that drugs can be harmful, though he argues much of the harm comes from their illegality and the complete lack of control over what ingredients – and their strength – drugs contain. What most concerns him is the question of emphasis.
If your only focus is on the harm, he explains, then the picture you gain will be completely distorted. To illustrate his point, he draws a comparison with driving a car. If all public discussion about cars revolved around car accidents, then the take-away would be that cars are dangerous and are to be avoided. In reality, we drive cars all the time and most of us get from A to B quickly and contentedly – unless it's crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge on a Friday afternoon.
It's a fair point, but is drug use really comparable? After all, there are speed cameras, fines, seat belts, air bags and traffic lights among a host of methods to make car journeys safer. Once you've bought a drug – even if you know its precise ingredients – there are plenty of ways for things to wrong. We're often told that hospital emergency departments are filled with middle-aged cocaine users with cardiac problems.
"That's false," Hart says. "We give thousands of doses in our laboratories here at Columbia every year – snorted cocaine, smoked cocaine – and we have never seen anything like a heart attack. I think that in general, medicine is conservative and errs on the side of caution."
He believes that there is a price to such caution, and it is, he says, "immense".
What he means by that, I think, is that placing limits on people's ideas of happiness will have, in the end, a deleterious personal and social effect. Although that may be true, it's also a rather idealistic outlook – not everyone is capable of regulating drugs in a sensible way, particularly those drugs that are the most addictive.
Going the extra miles
Addiction is actually a hotly disputed concept, with some arguing that there is no such thing as addictive drugs, only addictive personalities. Either way, the addictive personalities that find their way to heroin do seem to have a hard time getting off the drug. The legend of "cold turkey" has created an image that bothered Hart because he had never suffered any withdrawal symptoms in periods when he stopped using heroin.
So he decided to increase his heroin intake just to see if it had any adverse effect. He reports going through an extremely uncomfortable night that he would have no wish to repeat. But he also notes that he didn't feel like taking more heroin, or feel in any genuine danger – a situation he contrasts with alcohol withdrawal, which is potentially lethal.
Good on him, I say, but the stories of epic withdrawal battles are legion. As an example, I cite musician Miles Davis, who wrote about going through seven or eight days of hell in an effort to kick his heroin habit.
Hart calls into question Davis' account, suggesting that his excess time and money may have afforded him an irresponsible attitude to heroin use. Anyway, he says, it's an extreme example. "It would be like talking about someone who gets in multiple car accidents. Most of us don't do that kind of thing."
In some of his pronouncements, Hart can sound like an unbending libertarian who is indifferent to the plight of less "grown-up" drug users. It almost seems as if he takes it as a personal insult that his choices should be curtailed by the behaviour of others. But he has obviously given a lot of thought to all manner of issues relating to drug use, and he's travelled widely – Europe, South America and the Far East – looking at how different countries organise things.
One argument that he rejects is the one that says middle-class (often white) drug users are wilfully damaging poor (often black) communities by perpetuating an illegal and destructive drug market, with all the social costs that it involves.
"It's bullshit," he says. "Are you making sure these communities are educated, that they have healthcare, employment, all these basic things? That they are not over-policed and policed in an unfair way? It's just political theatre so you don't have to deal with the real issues that society faces."
The drugs themselves
At present, there isn't a country in the world that is ready to legalise drugs. There are some, such as Spain and Portugal, that have gone so far as to decriminalise drugs for personal use, but legalisation involves a much bigger cultural, legal and criminal-justice step.
It's taken centuries for the Western world to arrive at the current licensing laws for alcohol. For most of the 20th century, the "six o'clock swill" was in place in New Zealand.
And in the US, which had prohibition from 1920 to 1933, adults are not allowed to buy alcohol until they are 21. The very thought of coming up with a system by which competing brands of heroin, cocaine and crystal meth were available for legal consumption boggles the mind.
"We may have to evaluate this with every substance," acknowledges Hart. "Obviously, we'll have an age requirement and we may have to have a competency requirement for these drugs, such as a driver's licence. You may have to take a test or an exam in order to get the licence for permission to purchase these individual drugs."
It's not clear how that would play out. But then it's not Hart's job to create the infrastructure for the sale of Class A drugs. His part is to make the case that they should be legalised. Until now, the most powerful argument for legalisation has been the dreadful cost of the status quo – the huge expense of the American-led war on drugs, with its massive death toll, criminal gangs, industrial-scale incarceration and widespread social dysfunction.
But few people beyond the occasional hedonist or utopian have actually argued the case for the drugs themselves. Hart has the experience and professional standing to shift, even slightly, the manner in which drugs are discussed. His is a voice to be reckoned with.
"I'm not exceptional," he says. "I think there are a number of people who study drugs who are taking drugs. They've remained in the closet for years."
For Hart, emancipation from what he believes are draconian drug laws will come only when people stand up and declare their interests.
"People ask me all the time what they can do," he says. "It's very simple. You don't have to go far or know much. Get out of the closet. That's it."
It's an admirable stance, but when a nation has just voted against legalising the most widely used and least controversial of recreational drugs, perhaps now is not the moment to shout your fondness for crack cocaine from the rooftops.
In the meantime, Hart is going on sabbatical to Switzerland, a country he rates for its enlightened drug policies, and because it's somewhere he can be left alone. After the attention he's received for this book, he could probably do with some peace and quiet.