One Neuroscientist Rethinks Addiction

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The waiting area of the Brooklyn Family Courthouse isn’t where you’d expect to find a Columbia University neuroscientist. But Carl Hart isn’t your average professor.

His credentials are sterling: Hart has studied addiction and the brain for the last 25 years. He has tenure in Columbia's Psychology Department. He's on the National Advisory Council for Drug Abuse. His book, High Price, questions the War on Drugs. But his insistence on using lab research to advocate for changes in how drugs are dealt with in courts like this one is what makes him stand out.

Drugs are not as dangerous as we have made them out to be,” Hart says. “I'm trying to get people to use the data, the empirical evidence, and when you do that, you realize that we have been lied to, the public has been lied to.”

Professor Hart has been taking the stand and submitting written testimony in family courtrooms around the city, advocating for children to stay with their parents, even if their parents have tested positive for using marijuana.

Hart says the belief that casual marijuana use impairs your parenting has no scientific basis  — and pot use that isn’t excessive is on par with having a drink now and again: “We don’t remove children because their parents drink alcohol,” Hart points out. “My kids would be removed if that was the case.”

His journey from the lab to the courtroom is as much personal as it is scientific. Hart grew up in a Miami housing project — where drugs were impossible to avoid. He even sold some marijuana in high school. But by the time he got to college, his interest in drugs wasn’t recreational — it was clinical.

He started out studying how rats react to morphine, gradually working up to studying human drug users under carefully controlled, laboratory conditions.

The year he received his doctorate, he was the only black PhD in neuroscience in the country. And while he began studying drugs thinking his work would help him understand the chaos of his upbringing, he found that even the hardest drugs defied his expectations.

Take crack: “We've given thousands of doses of crack cocaine in the lab and haven't seen any negative effects,” Hart says.

 And marijuana seemed relatively harmless — far less addictive than nicotine or alcohol. He insists even long-term users don’t necessarily see memory damage: When you look at the data carefully, there aren’t any consequences of marijuana use that is not excessive,” he says.

But for friends and family in his old neighborhood – drugs did have consequences.

More than 50 percent of the guys who I grew up with spent time in jail on some drug-related charge,” Hart says. “It’s always some minor trafficking or possession charge. It's so normalized.”

That discrepancy between his conclusions in the lab and the consequences at home has made him a firm believer in decriminalization for all drugs.

But that’s a controversial opinion for an Ivy League researcher. Just down the hall from Hart’s uptown lab is the man who hired him, Dr. Herb Kleber. Kleber looks at the same data on addiction and sees substances that are dangerous – and he’s not alone.

I would say the majority of scientists would agree with me,” Kleber says.

Dr. Kleber was the deputy drug czar under the first President Bush. He sees marijuana laws loosening around the country — and says the consequences will be scary.

I don’t think legalization is the answer,” he continues. “We don’t want to lose a generation by making these drugs more readily available.”

For Hart, seeing the way the law plays out in places like Brooklyn’s Family Court disturbs him.  The last time he testified, it was on behalf of a mother who had tested positive for marijuana while giving birth in a city hospital. She said she used pot during prayer — and her children had never seen her intoxicated.

But the city investigated her for negligence anyway. Hart says even the case worker was torn: “She wanted me to know that she was in agreement with me, but had to do her job and wanted me to know that she was a good person,” Hart recalls. “I wasn’t her God — but she wanted forgiveness.”

The charges against that mother were eventually dropped. And if Professor Hart can use his research to change the outcomes for other moms like her, he will.


Read an excerpt from Hart's book "High Price" on Scribd.




Karen Frillmann


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Comments [34]

Dr. Jan Beauregard below:

You completely miss the point. Do we put alcoholics in prison? Why is it so hard for you to understand that prohibition does not stop people from using drugs? For every pot addict dropout you see, there are thousands more for who marijuana has no negative impact on their lives; in many cases it has a positive impact.

Dr. Hart never said drugs are harmless. He is saying that the consequences of criminalizing drug users are far worse that the effects of the substances. Surely you don't want to return to the bad old days of alcohol Prohibition (1920-1933). It was a huge failure.

There is absolutely no evidence that legalization would lead to widespread addiction. And saying it would be harmful to children is another red herring. There is no doubt that addiction is a disease, but treating addicts as criminals only makes the problem worse.

Jun. 14 2013 02:21 PM
DR. Jan Beauregard from Fairfax, VA

Addiction is a brain disease and clearly Dr. Hart does not treat addicts or clearly see the social costs of abuse and dependence. Truly the culture is de-evolving to believe that the legalization of yet another drug is beneficial for children and our families. In January each year my phone rings off the hook with first year college students who flunk out due to pot addiction. With legalization comes the belief that there is "no harm" and that couldn't be further from the truth. We know for some marijuana smokers psychosis can be triggered and IQ impacted. There are some who would believe we should legalize all drugs .... a boost to my practice for sure but a spiral into disaster for over 10% of our population (which is a low estimate as some never get to treatment). This sounds like the same argument Big Tobacco made years ago..... work with addicts and their families for a year and write again!

Check out the work of Donald Hilton, MD on addiction and the neuroplastic brain...

Jun. 13 2013 09:11 PM
steve castleman from San Francisco

Addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease. It's treatable. Perhaps not as successfully as one might like, but on a par with other chronic diseases that require substantial behavioral change, like diabetes and hypertension.

Unfortunately, many people still don't believe addiction is a disease. That's why science-based education is so important.

For a not-for-profit website that discusses the science of substance use and abuse in accessible English (how alcohol and drugs work in the brain; how addiction develops; why addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease; what parts of the brain malfunction as a result of substance abuse; how that malfunction skews decision-making and motivation, resulting in addict behaviors; why some get addicted while others don't; how treatment works; how well treatment works; why relapse is common; what family and friends can do; etc.) please click on

Jun. 13 2013 03:20 PM

I would have to disagree. Being an addict and a mother, I can say that while using I was neglectful of everyone and everything. I understand the word in moderation; however, anyone that has used crack knows, moderation does not go with that drug, as I am sure it does not go with others.
Addiction is a very serious disease and treating it any other way, will take an addict longer to accept they no longer can control drugs or their lives, and therefore longer to seek help.

Jun. 13 2013 02:21 PM

Many of the comments below reflect just how much ignorance there is about drugs and the drug war. From the ridiculous and dumb 'John from Office' to the misinformed 'LL from jersey' (medical marijuana is not a fiction), many of these commenters seem to not have listened very well.

I applaud Carl Hart for his work and his perspective. Face it folks, drug prohibition is far more harmful than the effects of drugs. This is especially true in the case of marijuana. It is a red herring to argue that prohibition should be continued in order to keep people from using drugs. It is beyond proven that the drug war approach simply does not work.

It is also false to say, as Mark does, that junk food companies will put drugs in everything. That was not true before and it not true now.

I guess it is not surprising that so many people would have negative, knee-jerk reactions to this kind of discussion. Kudos to WNYC, Brian Lehrer, and Dr. Hart!

Jun. 13 2013 12:33 PM

While I agree that criminalization of substances like marijuana is a big payday for those running private prisons, and that other drugs like heroine, methamphetamine and cocaine may not be as harmful to some as it is to others, I can say that on the whole I have seen the emotional effects some of these drugs have on interpersonal relationships. I have seen 1st hand the paranoia, lying, detachment and general isolation and distrust, overdose & death these drugs cause. I have seen many successful people who have so much to share simply self destruct and they hurt everyone around them. I have come to the conclusion that drugs can be used to make sick people well. They can also make well people sick.

Jun. 12 2013 11:00 PM

sigmund freud was a drug user and his theories are still in practice and studied in our educational institutes

Jun. 12 2013 09:55 PM
John A

This story is the moral equivalent of hearing a report "Global Warming may be serious, but it looks like it's here to stay. And who doesn't like bikini wearther 12 months a year? For WNYC, this is JF from the Future"
Seriously, I did appreciate the addition of Herb Kleber. And many comments just below.

Jun. 12 2013 06:26 PM
LL from jersey

I haven't had a chance to listen to this yet -- will podcast it this evening. But the text description makes me sad. Just because some addictive drugs are legal does that mean they all should be? How should these decisions be made? Look at the crazy inconsistency with which we treat different categories of drugs in our culture. Alcohol is legal, but regulation of sale is different in different states. Narcotics and other painkillers are tightly controlled in the legal prescription market but available pretty freely on the black market. Antidepressants, which are also addictive, are the most prescribed drugs in the country. Nicotine is sold on every corner. Marijuana is becoming more and more acceptable through the fiction of medicalization. And you can get oxycontin on the internet with just a credit card. What needs more research, I think, is what's at the root of our civilization's insatiable need for consumption of these substances, which cost us so much, in lives ruined, in dollars and in self-respect.

Jun. 12 2013 04:07 PM
Fritz from Bronx, NY

"Take crack: 'We've given thousands of doses of crack cocaine in the lab and haven't seen any negative effects,' Hart says."

Really? No negative effects? None at all?

The internet is chock-full of stupidity but this is the dumbest thing I've seen online in a while. I guess we're just supposed to chalk up all the instances we see of destroying lives as merely anecdotal and therefore not scientific. I too question the morality and usefulness of the "war on drugs" but absurd statements like the ones made in this piece do not advance the cause or the conversation.

Jun. 12 2013 02:24 PM

This guy may be a neuroscientist dedicated to studying drugs but apparently he hasn't taken any time to study the history of drugs. If you legalize heroin and morphine the junk food companies will just put it in everything. Wait till next to the cans of Redbull there are cans of Whitehorse. How can we tell? Because the last time drugs were legal this is exactly what happened. Also let's not forget that if you legalize drugs the United States and other industrialized countries will start producing it on a massive scale and flooding it into poor and defenseless countries. How do we know? Because the British already did this to China. You think Monsanto is bad now?

Also Columbia has zero credibility with me after they put Sudir Vankatesh in charge of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. Obviously they value charisma more than academic rigor at that school.

Jun. 12 2013 01:33 PM
Alice from New York

It is disingenuous and irresponsible of Dr. Hart to imply that the only negative consequences of drug abuse are derived from the legal system.

Jun. 12 2013 12:02 PM
jf from REALITY


Jun. 12 2013 11:50 AM

Right on dboy!!!!!

Jun. 12 2013 11:49 AM
Rachel Jung from upper west

I disagree with assumption that all drug users are potential next presidents. Alcohol and drugs are not the same - period!

Jun. 12 2013 11:48 AM
Nina from Village

Permissiveness to the nth degree is not a solution to the problem of injustice. It may even prove to be quite the contrary.

Jun. 12 2013 11:47 AM
Brooke from Brooklyn

Do you have any thoughts on controlled substances (i.e. drugs like Adderrall) and how those are being used and possibly abused?

Jun. 12 2013 11:44 AM

john from office ~

Carl Hart is far brighter than your feeble capacity could ever comprehend and certainly, exponentially better lookin' than you could ever dream of being.

Don't be a hater.

Try not to be so stupid.

Finally, please keep your odious racism to yourself.

Jun. 12 2013 11:43 AM
jf from REALITY


Jun. 12 2013 11:41 AM
jf from THE FUTURE

Marijuana cures cancer, and treats 400 diseases. Not only not toxic but incredibly good for your health. LOOK IT UP! BY THE WAY IT IS LITERALLY SLAVERY, THE PRIVATE PRISON CORPORATIONS GET 100,000 PER HEAD AND USE LOBBYISTS TO GET EVER HARSHER LAWS PASSED.

Jun. 12 2013 11:38 AM
jf from reality

alcohol causes cancer in many more than 1 in a million.A LOT MORE! mcdonalds causes cancer, and heart disease. You make a lot of assumptions about drugs ruining peoples lives. The police ruin millions of peoples lives and families over drugs. In comparison the harm from drugs is miniscule next to the harm from all drug enforcement.

Jun. 12 2013 11:32 AM


6:52 AM? So, getting up early is your key to astute commentary!!

Thanks so much.

Jun. 12 2013 11:31 AM

SANITY at last!!!

...and I hate drugs but, I HATE our MORONIC drug policy WAY more!!

Jun. 12 2013 11:28 AM
john from office

Some advise on being an advocate:

Avoid drowning out your message with your appearance, lose the dreds;

Avoid the " damn I look good photos"

Dont immediatly go for the victim language.

Jun. 12 2013 11:23 AM

I was hoping for me of a discussion on the neuroscience of addiction as opposed to a an opinion on how the legal system deals with use. I think the war on drugs has too long been a war on the people addicted to drugs.
We need to decriminalize and increase treatment and education.

Jun. 12 2013 11:14 AM
Bedajii Kunkowski

If drugs were made legal it would drastically change the balance of power in African-American communities, vs mainstream America. Why? Not so many African Americans would have their lives ruined before it even began, due to the high rates of drug related imprisonment. Drug related crime would go down etc. As for the African-American in this column, clearly he is a token, an excuse for modern eugenicist to persevere in their backwards beliefs. They are only concerned for their own children, they are not concerned about those that they effect with their "laws". As a matter of fact their plan is working perfectly!

Jun. 12 2013 10:10 AM
gina ballinger from graz, austia

thank you carl hart! american citzen california/graz austria

Jun. 12 2013 10:07 AM

He has the knowledge and had spent time doing the research.You can not challenge an accountant in his field of accounting,is the same with the professor here.

Jun. 12 2013 09:27 AM

This story and the Dr.'s opinions have nothing to do with addiction.

Jun. 12 2013 09:06 AM
Hope Eisler

How Sad..The only African-American Neuro-scientist in the country and he is making a name for himself by showing ignorance. So much for "Scientific Studies", as well. Just goes to show that data can reflect whatever one wants.

Jun. 12 2013 08:46 AM
john from office

Once this "expert" called the court system's attempt to take care of children, as slavery, I stopped listening. African Americans are so poorly served by these "advocates". Look at the state of Black America, it is time to police yourselves guys. Other groups move up and out, blacks are moving down and down.

To say that the Court system in Kings County is "white" is laughable. Have you ever been to Kings County, the courts are fairly mixed.

Jun. 12 2013 07:59 AM
Edward Paul MD from New York NY

There is a case to be made for the legalization of marijuana, not because it is harmless-- it isn't. Up to 17% of teenagers using marijuana do become dependent. While marijuana is vastly less addictive than nicotine, you re still talking about many, many cases of true adiction. Marijuana is implicated in increasing schizophrenia and other psychoses, lowers IQ, and is likely to cause lung and head and neck cancers. It could be vauable to have the surgeon general's warning as to dangers , which one's dealer won't disclose and is probabky ignorant about; use taxes for treatment (jail time for marijuana is cruel and highky destructive) and prevention. Selling to minors should be punishable by law.

Jun. 12 2013 07:15 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Can we ban the uses of the cutesy word "moms" in these articles purporting to be serious journalism? Is there any professionalism still out there among young writers?
Hey, why stop there? Why not refer to parents as "mommies" and "poppies"?

Jun. 12 2013 06:52 AM

Was hoping for some neuroscience and addiction with this piece!

Jun. 11 2013 11:57 PM

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