The first casualty in the war on drugs is the truth about how dangerous those drugs really are, according to a Columbia University neuroscientist.
Professor Carl Hart's new book, High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, sets out to eviscerate various prevalent "drug myths."
One of the most nefarious untruths, according to Hart, is that one hit of any drug -- be it heroin, methamphetamine or crack -- will get you addicted. There's just no science to back that up, Hart told The Huffington Post.
Another is that drug users are cognitively impaired. "There isn't any evidence to support that," Hart said.
"Even when they're on the drug, they're not cognitively impaired. Certainly, with something like alcohol, you'll get some disruption in cognitive processes -- you can see that. But when you take a drug like methamphetamine, you might actually see cognitive improvement."
Hart said readers shouldn't use his research as a justification for drug use.
"I'm not advocating that people go out and engage in any illegal activity, but I hope it will help people understand the real effects of drugs," Hart said. "When you have exaggerations about drugs, you provide an excuse for police to behave in inappropriate ways where too often a young person can end up dead."
The 46-year-old professor, who grew up in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Miami, said there are multiple constituencies responsible for perpetuating the myth of irresistible, evil drugs.
"Parents who don't want to think, they can say, 'Just say no to drugs because your brain will look like that egg in the commercial,'" Hart said.
"The problem is, the kids will realize, whether they have friends who try the drug or themselves, they will realize they've been misled."
Law enforcement also counts on the public's fear of drugs for funding, according to Hart.
"They perpetuate these myths because it increases their budgets. We spend $26 billion a year on the drug war. Law enforcement and prisons get a large amount of money to continue to perpetuate this stuff."
Even people like Hart and his co-workers benefit. "Researchers, treatment providers -- we all have a stake in the drug hysteria game," Hart said.
Hart doesn't argue that drugs can't be dangerous, but he does contend that their effects can be anticipated and understood.
"One of the things I've learned in 20 years of studying drugs is that drug effects are predictable," Hart said. "If you increase the amount of drugs, you increase the effects. The interactions between black boys and police officers are not predictable, unlike drug effects. We can teach people how to interact with drugs in a way that will keep them safe."
Hart bristles at the excuse, often made by drug war proponents, that the reason law enforcement polices drugs so aggressively is because people in poor neighborhoods want to feel safe. They want, the argument goes, to be treated the same way police treat those in wealthy communities.
"When [law enforcement] people say they care about poor communities and that's why they're there, that's so disingenuous," Hart said. "The thing that has caused the greatest amount of problems in these communities is they've arrested large numbers of black men who do not have the opportunity to contribute to their communities. That has caused more harm than drugs could ever do."
Even so, Hart does not support drug legalization, at least not before the public has a better understanding of drugs. Rather, Hart supports decriminalization, which would prevent people from spending time behind bars for drug crimes.
"The country is quite ignorant about the effects of drugs and what they do and don't do," Hart said. "We should increase the amount of realistic education surrounding drugs. What will happen if we have legalization is a number of effects will be attributed to drugs that are not true."