Carl Hart is a nationally recognized psychologist and neuroscientist who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wyoming. Last year he published the book Adult Drug Use: Chasing Freedom in the Land of Fear. In it, he argues for the legalization of drugs and an end to the war on drugs. He also comes out of the closet as an avid drug user himself, writing that drug use can be a rational, positive, and safe part of the pursuit of happiness. Jeff Victor of Wyoming Public Radio asked him why most Americans tend not to see it that way.
Carl Hart: Largely because of what we did. We’ve cleverly associated the activity of drug-using behavior with groups we don’t like. And so when you do that, one of the things you can do is get people to sacrifice their freedoms when you attach an activity that you’re going to pursue with a group that you don’t like. We do it with terror. We have all of these rights that we sacrificed with the Patriot Act, all of these rights at the airport, all of these rights that were sacrificed because the government cleverly linked the behavior it wanted to control with a group that everyone agreed was we had no Like. And so, we did this with drugs. When the country said freely that it didn’t like black people, that it didn’t like Chinese, Mexicans, Germans, we attached these behaviors to these groups that we didn’t like. And so the country was willing to sacrifice that freedom. It was like a wink. The original laws were such that people who were in the know – well-connected middle-class and upper-class whites – could still get their drugs, still enjoy their drugs. But for society at large, they would be restricted in such a way that those people we really don’t like don’t get that freedom.
Jeff Victor: In the spirit of talking about drugs in a more positive light, I wanted to ask you about heroin. You write that it’s basically your drug of choice, at least for now. Assuming that hasn’t changed in the year since your book was published, what about heroin or the opioids that make it your drug of choice?
CH: Did I say it was my drug of choice? Maybe it was ironic. Because what I like to say about “drugs of choice” is that it depends on what I’m looking for at the moment. If I’m with my wife, I’d like to do a psychoactive substance. It wouldn’t be heroin if I had the choice. It would be something like MDMA or even cocaine, but not heroin. But if I feel in a moment where I have to think about my day, be kind to people, be more magnanimous – but those are my private moments – then heroin would be fine for me. But in a party atmosphere, no heroin. Or with a loved one I’m trying to connect with intimately, that wouldn’t be heroin.
JV: Different drugs for different experiences or different occasions.
CH: Absoutely. Just like when we wake up in the morning, we don’t crave alcohol; we are looking for caffeine. Later at night, we’re not looking for caffeine, are we? We are looking for something like alcohol, or something else. Same kind of thing.
JV: You wrote something that really stuck with me. You said your drug use has made you a better person, better able to handle the stresses of life, and perhaps more forgiving or more loving in some contexts. When I was 18 and first tried alcohol, I was a shy kid and a bit socially anxious, but then trying alcohol made me more outgoing – you know, more comfortable talking to strangers or dancing, stuff like that. And just having that experience and knowing that it was available to me, so I could try to cultivate that in the rest of my life. And I think it made me more outgoing, just knowing it was available. So, I’m wondering if you’ve had experiences similar to these, or if you could clarify what you meant by writing, “I feel better about my drug use.”
CH: Just take a drug like 6-APB or MDMA – these drugs are known to enhance empathy, if you will. I use this word loosely because your ability to empathize is based on your level of maturity. But if I think of myself, it’s in terms of the ability to see things from the point of view of others, to be able to think about the impact of my behavior on the subsequent behavior of the person with those close to them. And I want to make sure that my own interactions with that person don’t negatively influence the interactions they have with their loved ones. So I can think of all these things. So when I think about my drug use and when I feel magnanimous, introspective, indulgent, I think I’m a better person because there’s a lot less chance that I’ll be a jerk to someone – in especially when I’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, I need to make sure that my interaction doesn’t negatively influence this person’s interactions with their children.’ And so I’ve discovered these kinds of things, or I do these things better when I’m impaired by certain substances. And so that’s what I meant. It just makes me think twice and think about how that person experiences that interaction.
JV: So your book Drug use among adults just released in paperback, but the hardcover and e-book have been out for a year. During this time, did you face any repercussions for coming out as a drug addict?
CH: It’s a difficult question for me to answer because if you pay attention to the press, I had a lot of negative reactions. I got a lot of love, sure, but I got pushed back by some corners I didn’t expect, especially left-leaning writers. And what I’m mostly talking about are psychedelic users, which are usually white males. And those who want to act like drugs like LSD, psilocybin – those kinds of drugs – are special and different from cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. And so I was repelled by this crowd, and this crowd are writers and so their influence is outsized. And so when you say repercussions, I guess that’s a repercussion that I didn’t expect. I mean, it’s cool because I’m happy to be able to exhibit this band. But in terms of other things, for example, there was the University of Central Florida. Even before this book came out, with just the things I said, like, “I’d rather my kids interact with drugs than the police.” Well, they disinvited me from giving a talk. So those kinds of things happened. But those kind of repercussions, I’ll live with that, because I live free and there’s no price I’m not willing to pay for my freedom. So there are repercussions to calling it what you see, as bluntly and frankly as possible. I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I’m not going to bite my tongue to spare anyone’s feelings when so many people are hurting because of it.
JV: Did you experience any repercussions in your personal life or did your loved ones already know about it?
CH: Few people knew about it except my wife and my immediate family. As if my father didn’t know. My mother didn’t know. But my dad was like, ‘Okay. That’s what you do, you tell the truth and you call it what you see. So no, no repercussions in my personal life, not like that. But they didn’t know. They were as shocked as everyone else. But they know me and they know I’m one of the most responsible people you’ve ever met. And they know that I am demanding and that I pay attention to everything I do. So they know I’m good anyway.
JV: Other people might not be as brave as you, and you encourage other professionals, people less likely to be marginalized, to come out of the closet with their own drug use. How can a teacher, or a handyman, or a public radio reporter find the courage to come out of the closet when there could be professional or personal consequences?
CH: I think the first thing is that everyone can go out in their own way. So I came out that way on the national scene. That’s what people see. But not everyone has the same kind of platform, doesn’t have thirty years of research experience in this field like me. So it will look different to others, and that’s what others need to understand. For example, some people may say, “Look, I’m telling my closest friends, and this is a milestone for me. Other people may be like, ‘I’m telling my employer.’ Other people may do it in a different way. But the point is, everyone has to think about the role they play – their kind of disguise, their being in the closet – and what role does that play in perpetuating this dishonesty, this nonsense? And so if everyone is just faced with this question, they will find what is best for them, in terms of reducing hypocrisy.