FEATURE

Breaking Through

Cannabis legalization is a growing reality: 20 states permit medical marijuana use, and Colorado and Washington have legalized it for all adults. But as more states line up — and more people light up — Columbia researchers wonder: what’s on the other side?

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2014
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“Proponents of marijuana legalization or liberalizing marijuana laws — I am one of those proponents — tend to vilify other drugs in order to make the point about marijuana. That vilification concerns me.”

Carl Hart is not your garden-variety neuropsychopharmacologist. He has a bundle of thick dreadlocks. He has three gold teeth. He has consorted with drug users and drug addicts. In his youth, he used drugs himself. Weed. Coke. He even sold a little weed on the side. He is the first tenured African-American professor in the sciences at Columbia, and he has traveled a different path.

Along that road he saw lives tossed to the wayside, lives ruined less by drugs than by the War on Drugs. Saw downward spirals set off by an arrest, a jail sentence, a bullet. Saw the demonization of a substance redound to its user.

As a scientist, Hart, forty-seven, assigns no value judgments to molecular structures. “When we think of marijuana as being separate from heroin and cocaine, we play up the distinction too much,” he says. “We say things like, ‘Nobody ever died from marijuana.’ That’s right — it takes a lot more marijuana to be that toxic. But they’re all psychoactive substances, and you can get into trouble with all of them. And you can also use all of them safely, to enhance functioning.”

The problem, says Hart, is that US drug policy favors politics and emotion over science. The majority of drug users aren’t addicts, he says; most don’t even have a drug problem.

“The drug issue in America has always served larger political goals. People still need this tool, so they’re going to fight vigorously. You will start to see this in Colorado and Washington. There will be studies funded to show that young people in those states start to smoke marijuana at an earlier age and do more poorly in life. These studies will come out in the next few years, before there’s even enough time to track the evidence, and you’ll really have to look at the details.

“Remember, scientists don’t always present all the data. You need to ask for all the data. Once you have it, you can think about what it means, as opposed to having the scientists tell you what it means in their introductions. Because their goal is not necessarily objectivity. Their goals are 1) not to be wrong, and 2) to make sure their labs stay funded. Objectivity is somewhere down the line. This is what people have been afraid to say in science, but it’s a fact.”

That New Zealand IQ study? “You look at the actual paper, which I do in my classes, and you find that the kids who smoked pot started out with higher IQs than the other kids, and they just regressed toward the mean over time. Their IQs stayed in the normal range. But the claim was, ‘These kids became dumber.’”

“I think one of the things we have to look forward to is the vilification of the youth of Colorado and Washington.” — Carl Hart

The gateway theory? “Think about it from a simple perspective: the majority of people who smoke marijuana don’t go on to use heroin, although the majority of people who use heroin have smoked marijuana at some point in their lives. It’s an illogical argument. The majority of people who use heroin also drank milk.”

Psychosis? “This notion that people smoke marijuana, become psychotic, and kill their mothers — these arguments recycle themselves, and they’re back today. The language has been tempered and the arguments are a little more sophisticated, but when you look at it carefully and ask, ‘How are they measuring psychotic behavior?’ then you start to see some troubling things. For example, people are given a questionnaire. Some questions are related to psychosis, like, ‘I hear things that other people don’t hear.’ But then you have things like, ‘I feel special,’ or ‘I am uncomfortable in public.’ That’s the psychotic scale, supposedly. That’s troubling.

“I think one of the things we have to look forward to,” Hart says, “is the vilification of the youth of Colorado and Washington.”

Hart grew up in a poor section of Miami. Like a lot of kids, his mind was mainly on girls, basketball, and music. In his pleasure seeking he was eager yet disciplined, motivated as much by an athlete’s will (no sex before a game) and a macho street culture (cool guys had multiple partners) as by any biological drives. Later, in college, he studied the dopamine-producing “pleasure center” in the brains of rats, at a time when this region was thought to hold the key to curing addiction. Subsequent research suggested a more complex story, one that, for Hart, was crystallized still later, at Columbia, where in lab experiments he furnished crack-addicted human subjects with crack cocaine, then gave them a choice between the drug and other “reinforcers,” like small amounts of cash. That the subjects did not clamor for the drug, and went for the money instead, told Hart that there was more to addiction than chemicals, that context mattered, and that addicts could make rational decisions, especially when presented with desirable alternatives.

Last summer, Hart published a book, High Price, that traces his progress from the hood to the Air Force to college to grad school to Columbia, and challenges common assumptions about drugs and drug use. He has since become a hot item on TV talk shows and the lecture circuit, speaking out against the antidrug establishment not just as a scientist but as someone who has seen drugs — and the impacts of US drug policy — up close.

“The problem with many researchers,” says Hart, “is that they benefit handsomely for their perspectives. Everybody has a price. I know their price and I know what they respond to. But when you look at what they actually know about drugs, that’s where it all falls apart. Because they don’t know anything about drugs. Or actually hang out in subgroups that use drugs, or really study drugs in those types of settings. These folks have no idea. They only have anecdotes from their patients, and their patients have problems — the patients are the aberrant, pathological group. And that’s the group on which they’re basing all their information.”

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