By Bruce Jacobs

High Price
by Dr. Carl Hart
($26.99, 352 pp.)

If all you know of methamphetamine is what you learned over five seasons of Breaking Bad, you are not alone. Solid scientific research on the effects of major illegal “drugs of abuse” on human subjects is rarely funded and even more rarely publicized.

It is much easier to watch the coveted Heisenberg Blue Meth turn New Mexico into a wasteland of toothless violent addicts, or to see the dangerous madness of crack cocaine in the image of a flaming Richard Pryor running down a Los Angeles street waving a cigarette, or to assume that Jerry Garcia’s long love affair with heroin was the bullet that put Captain Trips in an early grave at 52.

A Rational Conversation

Carl Hart, Columbia University professor and research neuroscientist, wants to bring the drug conversation out of this world of anecdotal sensationalism into the world of statistically structured research. And he wants that conversation to consider the high price our society pays for hearsay-driven drug laws and their draconian prison sentences.

Hart knows what he’s talking about. Not only is he one of the few scientists with a decade of human subject drug research data, he’s also the product of a large, north Miami black family where alcohol was his abusive father’s drug of choice. When his parents split and his mother went to New York for work, he and his seven siblings were parceled out to grandmothers and aunts for whatever raising they could get. Each of them struggled with drugs, crime, prison, bigotry, or poverty at one time or another. Against statistical odds, all of them survived to see him finally get his PhD. So High Price is as much the personal story of Carl Hart as it is a discussion of the research facts about “hard drugs.”

Coming of Age

Science (with a capital S and a PhD) was the last thing that interested Hart as young black boy with an absent father. He was already chasing girls at eleven and no longer a virgin at age fourteen. His paternal and maternal grandmothers did their best to show him the way. In hindsight he sees that one favored the Du Bois approach where “education was primarily what would advance the race,” and the other followed Booker T. Washington’s direction where “getting a trade was more important.”

Like many young men, he wanted to be cool and so mostly acted like his peers did. Sports, not education, mattered. When he wasn’t on a basketball court, he played with girls, drugs, and petty theft. Schoolwork and the snobbery of kids with good grades were labeled “acting white” – the worst kind of diss.

Learning to Win

As good a basketball guard as he was, Hart didn’t grow much beyond 5′ 9″ and any dreams of making it in the pros ended. If nothing else, however, sports taught him that practice and hard work were things that would get him the satisfaction of winning. That perseverance and a strong score in math on the military service exam got him off the streets.

His stint in the Marines (they had sharper uniforms than the Army) provided helpful male mentors who encouraged him to use his math skills to go to college. Higher education was no easy thing for a kid who still had trouble speaking “white English” and had read practically nothing in school, but Hart recounts stories of how he sweated through college, was inspired by the logic of science, and once again was lucky enough to have mentors who encouraged him.

After earning a B.S. degree from the University of Maryland, he had teachers who helped open doors to a graduate internship at Yale and ultimately a PhD from the University of Wyoming—perhaps the whitest place he had ever lived. There, he fell in love with classmate Robin. After struggling with concerns that he was insulting his “sisters” by choosing a white woman like many successful black men did, he married her.

Doubts Along the Way

In rough outline Hart’s personal climb from an aimless childhood of sports and petty crime to become an upper middle-class professional and New York City family man may sound like a smooth bootstrapping arc. In fact, he readily admits to doubts and failures along the way; perhaps the biggest being when he is named in a paternity suit by one of his youthful girlfriends. He fights it until the DNA proves him to be the father, one who effectively abandoned a son just as his own father had.

When he first meets Tobias at age 21, he finds a high school drop out drug dealer, “a young, uneducated black man in a world that had no use for him.” All the money and care he was expending on his and Robin’s two preteen sons meant nothing compared to the absence he gave the son he never knew he had. It is a poignant prick to the hubris balloon that marks Hart’s early success, and one he can only accept and try to learn from.

Science Follows Life

Hart’s own life directed his research interest. His ability to choose to spend his nights shooting and dribbling until dark instead of doing drugs with his friends became the seed from which his research with drug users grew. When the media was hysterical with the mantra that crack, or crank, or X were destroying communities with instant addiction, he decided to test the hypothesis in the lab with real addicts.

Most previous research had been with lab rats. Better than most, he knew the wasteland of wildly successful treatments in rodents that nonetheless failed dismally in patients. Hart caught the attention of investigators worldwide when he joined the faculty of Columbia and successfully received funding to test human hard drug users in his lab research.

What he found surprised him at first, but in the context of his own life seemed curiously rational: when offered a choice between a strong hit of their drug of choice or a significant cash reward, most addicts most of the time took the cash. Their brains weren’t so scrambled with “voracious craving” that they couldn’t make rational decisions.  The infamous 1980s anti-drug commercial that ended with frying eggs and the tagline “This is your brain on drugs” was poppycock.

Political Agendas Interfere

Hart got his research published, but he quickly ran into the buzz saw of political agendas and public misconceptions. We are still on a “War on Drugs” path where political decisions are based on “zero tolerance.” The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act contained a 100:1 penalty for crack versus powder cocaine possession even though pharmacologically they have the same effects. Although this was amended in 2010, the ratio is still 18:1.

Hart points to the U.S. Sentencing Commission report that shows that “90 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine offenses were black, even though the majority of users were white.” This law and other excessive drug penalties have effectively decimated a whole generation of young black men. Forty percent of inmates in the U.S. are black, and thirty percent of black males between ages 20-29 are under some form of court restriction.

When he argues for a more science-based approach to drug legislation, Hart finds little traction. A self-described “black, dread-locked academic/researcher with three gold teeth working at an Ivy League university,” he doesn’t help political allies win votes in the Heartland.

High Price is one way he hopes to get the facts out there. He is proud of his academic stature…and he deserves to be. However, it’s his story-telling that makes his book so effective. Drugs have been around as long as we have. Future generations will make better choices when they know more about them and aren’t sitting in jail. Diligent, articulate scientists like Carl Hart will provide that knowledge…and perhaps also bring more reason to drug laws.

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