Carl Hart has a novel idea for his upcoming visit to Vancouver: he wants to have an adult conversation about drugs.
“Our current way of dealing with drugs—banning them, for the most part—has forced a lot of responsible adults into the closet…and impacted their civil liberties,” the New York author and neuroscientist told the Georgia Straight by phone. “If people weren’t in the closet about their drug use, people would have better information, like, don’t mix opioids with certain types of sedatives, and make sure the opioids you get are tested for purity and adulterants….That’s not happening, as a result of our current approach.”
Hart, chair of Columbia University’s department of psychology, explained that society generally forbids public discourse about illicit drugs that doesn’t begin with the premise that drugs are bad and therefore should never be consumed for enjoyment. That precludes conversations about how drugs can be used in ways that are relatively safe, Hart continued. The result is a situation where many people who use drugs lack knowledge that could one day save their life.
“Alcohol is a really potentially dangerous drug, but we manage to live with this drug,” Hart said. “We’ve taught people how to do it; we regulate the unit doses that can be put in each sort of package, and we do all of these things that enhance the safety of alcohol.
“The same sorts of thing can be done with something like heroin, something like MDMA, and other drugs,” he maintained.
Hart will discuss how this can come about as part of the Wall Exchange lecture series at the Vogue Theatre on May 23, organized by the Peter Wall Institute. With a cheeky title, “Drug Use for Grownups”, he’ll be joined onstage by Caitlin Shane, a lawyer with Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society, and Garth Mullins, host of the Downtown Eastside podcast Crackdown.
Hart said Vancouver is a special place for him. He’s visited many times and has followed the city’s expansion of supervised-injection services and other harm-reduction programs. It was also Vancouver that helped shape his current views on drug-policy reform, Hart revealed.
He recounted a 2013 visit he made in support of his breakthrough book, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.
“There was a guy, a long-time activist, and I was going on about decriminalizing drugs, like, ‘I think we should decriminalize drugs,’ ” Hart recounted.
Decriminalization would involve removing criminal penalties for personal possession. The activist—former Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users president Dean Wilson, the Straight learned—argued that this wouldn’t go far enough. Wilson told Hart that what was required to end the drug war is legalization and regulation.
“He said, politely, who was I to decide whether he could have access to drugs?” Hart continued. “And he was right. Who gave me the right to decide what this adult can have? That changed my perspective.”
The book Hart had travelled with to Vancouver, High Price, expresses his support for decriminalization. In part thanks to Wilson and that 2013 exchange, Hart said his forthcoming book advocates for full legalization and regulation.
There is growing belief that the war on drugs is a failure. One reason why is the opioid epidemic. There were an estimated 72,000 fatal overdoses across the United States in 2017, up from 64,000 the previous year and 52,000 dead in 2015. In Canada, opioids alone kill roughly 4,000 people every year.
Hart said misconceptions about why people take hard drugs are obstructing effective responses to North America’s significant increase in overdose deaths.
“Addiction has little to do with the drug itself,” Hart said. He explained that if addiction was only caused by the substance, North America’s most common response to addiction—punishment—might have some positive effect. “But addiction itself has more to do with psychosocial issues,” Hart said. “Punishment does not work on those factors.”
Once this is understood, Hart continued, conversations around the opioid epidemic can move on to initiatives that, unlike punishment, stand a realistic chance of saving lives.
“Make drug-checking facilities available to people,” he suggested. “You could make heroin available and figure out how to regulate that. And until you do that, you should have drug-checking and teach people about the different forms of fentanyl….I guarantee you, you will decrease the number of drug-related deaths. That’s really simple.”
Carl Hart is scheduled to speak in Vancouver as part of the Peter Wall Institute's Wall Exchange lecture series on May 23 at 7 p.m. at the Vogue Theatre (918 Granville Street). The event is free but advanced registration is required.