It's not every day you read a book that blows the lid off everything you've ever been taught about drugs, but Dr. Carl Hart's recent work, High Price, does just that. Part memoir, part myth-buster, this fast-paced read details his journey from a violent Miami ghetto to the halls of one of the world's most prestigious universities. Chapter by chapter Dr. Hart dismantles myths about crack, meth, and other drugs, while offering a biting critique of current drug policy.
At the heart of High Price is the argument that current U.S. drug policies are not only morally wrong, but scientifically wrong as well, a game of politics and fear-mongering in which our government sanctions the widespread prescription of certain drugs, while locking over 1.5 million people behind bars each year for the use of others. If you've ever wondered why our nation pops Adderall like candy while its twin sister, methamphetamine, is relegated to bathtub breweries in trailer parks, High Price has the answer - just not the one you were expecting.
Backed by Hart's own research (in which he actually administers cocaine and methamphetamine to humans in controlled settings), High Price argues that the pharmacological properties of drugs, such as their addictiveness or potential to cause irrational behavior, have no role in determining which drugs are pimped by addicts on street corners and which by doctors in lab coats. Hart uses anecdotes from his own life growing up in a community where poverty, violence, and crime abounded to point out that behavior surrounding drug use is as much a product of environmental and social factors as the drugs themselves.
High Price also denounces the role of the criminal justice system in drug policy. Law enforcement don't know anything about the pharmacology of drugs, says Hart, and in fact, our punitive system perpetuates the drug problem by creating a permanent underclass of people with criminal records who are denied employment, housing, and reintegration into society based on crimes they may have committed as children. Dr. Hart himself sold drugs and participated in petty crimes as a youth, yet while his former peers now languish in prisons, half-way houses and graveyards, he became the first tenured African-American professor of science at Columbia University. Hard work played a role, as did the presence of influential mentors, but Dr. Hart argues that he was able to escape the system precisely because he was never caught up in it. While his peers were apprehended for drug dealing and sentenced to juvenile homes and jails where they learned to be better criminals, Hart managed to escape these consequences. Lack of a criminal record allowed him the freedom to leave youthful indiscretion behind as he matured and turned towards intellectual pursuits.
Ultimately, High Price makes the case for a drastic change in drug policy, one based on facts, not fear. Dr. Hart favors decriminalization, which means that certain drugs would still be illegal, but being caught for possession would carry a civil penalty such as a fine, instead of a criminal sentence. He believes that open, honest discussion about drugs and their consequences is key to dismantling misguided policies and creating a solution in which science has a place at the table. Certainly High Price is a springboard from which to launch that discussion.