Dr. Carl Hart

A Scientist on a Mission to Spread Knowledge in Support of Health and Happiness of Drug Users

by Jessi Lane, Patient Advocate

Jessi Lane, Patient Advocate is a writer and Oklahoma cannabis industry professional since 2018. She is a Certified Cannacian III and Trichome Institute Certified Cannabis Consultant with a “full spectrum” Postpartum Wellness background.

“Whether we like it or not, recreational drugs are part of our society, and it should be our mission to use this knowledge in support of the health and happiness of drug users. Clearly, part of this mission is to try to keep them safe, not push them into the shadows and force them to risk their lives when there are better alternatives,” (p. 83) says Dr. Carl Hart (2022) in his latest book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear.

Carl L. Hart, PhD, is a neuroscientist and psychologist studying the behavioral and neuropharmacological effects of psychoactive drugs in humans. Dr. Hart is the Ziff Professor of Psychology in the departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Columbia University and is one of the first tenured African American Professors of Science at an Ivy League institution of higher learning. Hart is a member of the National Advisory Council of Drug Abuse and a board member of the Drug Policy Alliance. He has published a wide variety of scientific literature focusing on dependence, drug-taking behaviors, drug self-administration and the cognitive effects of drug use and has testified before the U.S. Congress serving as an expert witness on the effects of psychoactive drugs (American Psychological Association [APA], 2022). “I see the job of the scientist, in part, as helping to correct the blunders of politicians and journalists. It’s one of the reasons that I became a scientist” (Hart, 2022, p. 107), he says. 

It may be true that Dr. Hart is a renowned scientist and an educator. But first and foremost, he is an activist. He is committed to our nation’s citizens who are “tired of watching their tax dollars fund unethical people and corporations” (Dr Carl Hart, n.d.). Dr. Hart has shared that this ultimately perpetuates social inequality and does not lead to effective drug policy. “The privileges afforded to some are acquired at the expense of others” (Hart, 2022, pg. 26), he reminds us. In fact, a 2020 report released by the American Civil Liberties Union showed Black people are 4.2 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Oklahoma, despite comparable national marijuana usage rates. Oklahoma also ranks thirteenth in the nation for the largest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests (ACLU 2020). “This characteristically American pattern of cognitive flexibility on drug policy, with harsh penalties for some and sympathetic treatment for others, has a long history” (Hart, 2022, p. 25), he says. This issue of racial bias expands nations. “I have also observed that the enforcement of drug laws, regardless of the country, is frequently carried out in a selective manner. Individuals from despised and marginalized groups are disproportionately targeted, arrested, and imprisoned for drug-law violations, even though recreational drug use is common in every strata of society” (Hart, 2022, p.251).

Dr. Hart believes the US government should not infringe on certain unalienable rights of its citizens as described by the Declaration of Independence, of which he is inspired. Among these are the rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. He feels this document declares governments are created to secure these rights, not to restrict them. “Why is it that guns can be legally purchased but heroin cannot?” (Hart, 2022, p. 54) he asks. “Why is alcohol legal, whereas heroin is banned?” (Hart, 2022, p. 55) Dr. Hart has stated that adults should be permitted the legal right to sell, purchase, and use recreational drugs of their choice, just as they have the rights to engage in consensual sexual behaviors, drive automobiles, and purchase and use guns.If there isn’t vigorous and continuous resistance to governmental intrusions on freedom, the rights guaranteed by our noble founding documents will be steadily eroded. I remind[ed] my students that it is their responsibility to fight each day for these rights. If they don’t, we will lose them” (Hart, 2022, p. 38).

Psychology Group. (Nov. 9, 2016)
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

With his expertise in pharmacology and all the pomp and circumstance that accompanies a man of his stature having been published extensively on the topic of drugs, Dr. Hart (2022) relays to us in the simplest of terms and with certainty, “there is no drug that produces addiction after only one use” (p. 94). In his thirty-year career, Hart (2022) says he has “discovered 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. Even recreational drugs can and do improve day-to-day living” (p. 9). Furthermore, he tells us, “There are virtually no data on humans indicating that responsible recreational drug use causes brain abnormalities in otherwise healthy individuals” (Hart, 2022, p. 96). To account for the relatively small percentage of individuals who do become addicted, Dr. Hart has found co-occurring psychiatric disorders account for a substantial proportion of these addictions. “We need to cut the bullshit,” he says, “and stop pretending drugs inevitably – and only – lead to undesired outcomes” (Hart, 2022, p. 62).

Any old-timer will tell ya, marijuana available today is ten times more potent than the marijuana of the 1960s. This political regurgitation implies “the weed of the 1960s might have been relatively harmless, but the current stuff is dangerous. Well, that’s an oversimplification,” (pp. 73-74) says Dr. Hart (2022). He firmly believes, decade after decade the public has been deceived regarding the real effects of cannabis. He tells us, “A stream of blatant lies has been promulgated to justify marijuana prohibition” (Hart, 2022, p.164). He goes on to say, “Too many people now have marijuana-use experiences that conflict with the cannabis gaslighting engaged in by public officials” (Hart, 2022, p. 164). According to DEA.gov, Marijuana is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision (Drug Enforcement Agency 2020). However, the March 3, 2022 OMMA licensing report shows 381,974 Oklahomans have received their license to consume cannabis for medical reasons (Oklahoma 2022). Dr. Hart’s (2022) extensive research can also argue “to say marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs is baseless: correlation, a mere link between factors, does not mean that one factor is the cause of another” (p. 8) 

While cannabis may not be his primary drug of choice, Dr. Hart himself is a respected, successful drug user and is now, after many years, willing to share his firsthand experiences. “My conscience will no longer allow me to remain silent about my drug use, nor can I remain silent about the absurdity of punishing people for what they put into their own bodies” (Hart, 2022, p. 252). He goes on to say that, with his extensive studies, if he did not come out, he’d be a hypocrite and a coward (Hart, 2022, p. 252). “I should know because I had been living as such for many years, I refuse to do so any longer” (Hart, 2022, p. 252). He recommends that respectable middle-class drug users also stop concealing their use. In doing so it would help to thwart the generalization that all drug users are troubled, irresponsible members of society. Dr. Hart and his spouse, Robin, are in favor of whatever makes one a better person and makes the world a better place for all. “I am simply pointing out that we have found, at least from our perspective, what works for us, in line with who we are and with who we are striving to become- more compassionate and humane people” (Hart, 2022, pp. 116-117). 

Dr. Hart understands the immense importance of his position as Guide, if you will, when wistfully reflecting on Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 song, I’m New Here– “It’s just that the song forces me to think about my responsibility regarding showing others around; to provide drug users with a few important lessons to facilitate their health and happiness. If I had to boil them down to a few tips, they would involve these four topics; dose, route of administration, set, and setting” (Hart, 2022, p. 73). In Drug Use for Grown Ups, Hart provides detailed strategies that a responsible adult drug user can employ to enhance positive drug effects, while minimizing negative ones. These are the same tactics used in his government-funded research designed to keep research participants safe. “Dose is everything” (Hart, 2022, p. 74), he says. “By dose, I simply mean the amount of drug taken. This is perhaps the most crucial factor in determining the effects produced by the drug” (Hart, 2022, p. 73). He explains that generally, larger doses increase the likelihood of harmful effects- this being one of the most basic principles of pharmacology. We know that potency is the amount of drug required to produce a particular effect and have learned the smaller the amount needed to cause the response, the more potent the drug. Dr. Hart (2022) includes, “the route of administration determines the speed at which the drug reaches the brain and, therefore, the immediacy and intensity of the drug’s effects” (p. 75). The set and setting – or environment, mindset, and company – will also affect the user’s individualized results, as well as the user’s tolerance.

“It is not surprising that the highest drug-related mortality rates in the United States are found in regions, including the Appalachia and Oklahoma, with lower rates of university completion and greater economic distress” (Hart, 2022, p. 79), he says. Drug testing facilities would greatly reduce these numbers as Dr. Hart has found that a grave number of ODs are due to contamination, often with illicit Fentanyl. “Imagine if we could provide [drug safety testing services] for communities around the world and give every user the opportunity to test their drugs to ensure they are safe. Deaths from contaminated drugs would be dramatically reduced” (Hart, 2022, p. 81). In his international travels Dr. Hart (2022) has found fewer drug related deaths where drug testing services are available and believes “if our current government – or any government – were genuinely concerned about the health and safety of drug users, it would ensure that free, anonymous drug-safety testing services were widely available” (p. 250). That may be far and away for Oklahoma – and sadly too late for many of our loved ones who are drug users – however in a feat of social service in April 2021 Kevin Stitt approved Senate Bill 511, allowing drug users to exchange used hypodermic needles for clean needles without fear of retribution. 

Recently Dr. Carl Hart visited Tulsa’s own Magic City Books for an in-person author event to celebrate the paperback release of his latest book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. He shared Tulsa’s evening engagements with Snoop Dog and Ice Cube, who were performing up the street. “50-year-olds on stage doing hip hop. That’s gonna be interesting,” he smirked to his intimate audience. “We are competing with some aging hip hoppers.” Dr. Hart has visited Tulsa before and was among friends at Magic City Books. As a knowing audience nodded their heads in agreement he confirmed, “Oklahoma, you’ve been arresting everybody in this state.” He reiterates, “you are really one of those states that really go after your white people.” Familiar characters named in the book proudly took audience with attendees present from various Tulsa communities in almost gleeful congregation. “After reading this book, I hope you will be less likely to vilify individuals merely because they use drugs. That thinking has led to an incalculable number of deaths and an enormous amount of suffering. (Dr Carl Hart n.d.)” He goes on to say, “If the ideas expressed in this book are embraced, we can get on with the business of treating each other better and enjoying more meaningful and fulfilling lives. And isn’t that what we all want” (Dr Carl Hart n.d.)?

Today Dr. Hart resides in both New York and Geneva. “I can’t do the American thing anymore,” he told his captivated Magic City audience. “I’ve had enough of the hypocrisy.” He encourages us to go, live our lives openly and out. “There is no such thing as being completely safe. Any life worth living is not without risk. So, I would suggest you live your life as you see fit. At least you will be living” (Hart, 2022, p. 53).