The day this column hits the stands will be widely celebrated as the high holy day “4/20,” a holiday replete with fabled origin stories, traditions and, now that we’ve got a cannabis industry, commercialization, too. In Boulder and Denver, the day is infamous for massive congregations of people coming together for the public consumption of pot and, although the context of the gatherings have changed, the larger symbolic gesture remains the same.
Public consumption of marijuana has long been a sort of “screw you” to the proverbial “man,” proof you’re not a suit, a nod toward the freedom to consume whatever you damn well please. It is the right to assemble mixed with a dose of civil disobedience — it’s about as American as it gets.
“You’re an American,” Dr. Carl Hart says to me over the phone on his train ride home in New York. “This is a deeply American problem.”
It’s your problem and mine, even if we don’t see our connection to it.
“For example, many white mothers didn’t see Mike Brown as their kid, but he was,” Hart says. “I mean, this is our country, this is your country and you should [care].”
Renowned scientist, activist, educator and chair of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, Hart will be speaking at the Institute of Cannabis Research Conference at CSU Pueblo on April 27. A quarter century ago, Hart began studying neuroscience as a way to end the drug problem.
Hart first came to this approach via the persuasive rhetoric of the war on drugs, as he explains in a March article for Nature: “I believed that the poverty and crime in the resource-poor community from which I came was a direct result of drug addiction; so, I reasoned that if I could cure addiction, especially through neural manipulations, I could fix the poverty and crime in my community.”
The notion of addiction as a disease of the brain has long served as a cornerstone of the idea that drugs lead to the degradation of the individual and of society at large. But, in 25 years of scientific practice and research, Hart has not found an empirical basis to link addiction and brain disease.
What he did find was indisputable evidence to substantiate that drug criminalization ravages poor, minority neighborhoods. Marijuana possession accounts for about half of the 1.5 million annual drug arrests, and blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than whites, despite similar rates of usage. But, according to Hart, “drug abuse science does not support our current drug policy.”
As the legal landscape for marijuana shifts around us, many of us are experiencing our own awakening, privy for the first time to evidence provided by personal experience, and unlearning pervasive prejudices in the process. Despite what we were taught, there is no inherent evil in drugs. There is no moral damnation awaiting the user. The utopia we seek isn’t free of drugs, au contraire, it’s where they are accepted and used safely. Our prejudice may have been deeply ingrained, but it turns out it is not inextricable from the fabric of our lives. We can choose a different path.
In November 2016, Hart wrote in an article for Vice.com that “we as society should recognize that drug use is an activity in which humans have engaged since they first inhabited the Earth. We will always use drugs. My acknowledging this fact does not function as an endorsement but rather a realistic appraisal of the best available evidence to educate people and keep them safe.”
I ask him to imagine a world beyond criminalization. Clearly, this isn’t the first time he’s thought about this, readily rattling off a list of what needs to be done to create a society that safely coexists with drugs — decriminalize all substances; shift drug education away from prevention and toward safe use; establish free drug testing centers to make sure drugs are what they appear to be (it’s the adulterants that are dangerous, he says, not the parent drugs); and institute schemes for the regulation of drug manufacturing and trade.
In the meantime he offers a warning: to be slow in our thinking and to learn from the mistakes in our hasty adoption of the drug war. Don’t fall for it when government officials try to appease marijuana users by saying that “marijuana is not a factor in the war on drugs,” as head of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly recently did in an appearance on Meet the Press.
“750,000 people are still arrested for marijuana possession every year,” Hart reminds me. “People are still being put in the system, still being labeled habitual offenders.”
What about gains in research of psychedelics in their ability to affect notoriously difficult to treat psychiatric diseases?
“Be careful with that, too,” he says. “These are the same people that think of psychedelics as being different from crack cocaine or heroin, people who are using them to transcend this place and go to a higher plane. It’s just a way to separate their drug use from that of a person who is smoking crack, but it’s all the same. We are all seeking the same thing: to be psychoactively altered, no matter how you color it or dress it up.”
Hart left me with the feeling that when it comes to drugs, we cannot single out our drug of choice and be satisfied when it is freed from the chains of criminalization. “You have to see how your cause is connected to the cause of the cocaine or heroin user — to pretend that one drug is uniquely therapeutic is simply not true.”
If you decide to light up on 4/20, take a moment to recognize how drugs connect us all. Light up in honor of your personal freedom, sure, but remember the cost others pay each day for the exact same act.