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Addiction, Carl, and Society

Apr 22, 2014 noticed Carl Hart crossing the street while I was sitting outside at a cafe, and I looked up in time to see his thick dreadlocks falling down a sports jacket. He was probably coming home from his lab at Columbia University's Psychiatric Institute where he researches drug addiction.

He and I knew each other casually when I was in the Psychology Department at Columbia with a research lab studying the brain's reward processes.  I liked Carl's easy going personality, and we had similar research interests.

A few years ago, I bumped into Carl at the Psychiatric Institute where I was meeting a colleague. I was leaving the building just when Carl was entering. We chatted a little, and he invited me to come down to see his laboratory, where people with addictions volunteer to stay for weeks under observation. I asked him what he thought about the prevalent view of the National Institute on Drug Abuse that addiction to crack and heroine is like falling off a cliff.  The idea is that if you use the drug a few times something changes in the brain, and drug taking becomes a compulsive habit that takes over more and more of your life.  He said he thinks it's mostly hogwash (maybe he said bullshit). He said he grew up in a neighborhood where a lot of people took drugs including crack, and most had families, held jobs, and incorporated drugs into their lives as a recreational activity during the weekend.

I told him that I show my class a documentary where a guy is explaining how he started taking crack and pretty soon he'd lost his job, his family, everything. All he cared about was getting high. That's not realistic?

"It's misleading" he said. "Some people who use crack end up with ruined lives. Same thing with alcohol." He said that in his view the ones with ruined lives usually had big problems before the drug abuse. Drugs are often the scapegoat for problems in poor neighborhoods, he said. Bigger societal issues don't get talked about, they're too complex.

I'm still not sure whether Carl's overstating the view. It seems to me that some drugs cause big changes in the brain and are more addictive and dangerous than others. Carl says that the case for crack being especially dangerous just doesn't add up from the scientific literature. Maybe he's right.

Since our conversation that day, I saw a review of his book "High Price" in the newspaper, and I saw him giving an interview on CNN.

When I noticed him crossing the street the other day, I remembered someone saying 'a writer should have something he wants to say.' And looking at Carl I thought 'There he is. A writer who had something to say.'