The Guardian Reviews High Price

Over 40 years ago President Richard Nixon declared war on “public enemy No 1” in the US – drug abuse. Since then, aggressive US anti-drug policies have continued unabated, with over $1 trillion spent on law enforcement and over 45 million people arrested on drugs charges. However, the numbers remain relatively unchanged, with over 20 million users of illegal drugs in the US today. Many voices on the international stage are starting to speak out against not only the failure of these policies but the harm they are causing. Yet the PR machine created around the war on drugs still exerts a huge influence over public opinion.

In High Price, Dr Carl Hart joins the growing number of professionals breaking with conventional thinking as he debunks myths and misconceptions associated with illegal drugs. Hart brings two very different but complementary perspectives to the debate: his experience of growing up in a poor African-American community in Miami, and his scientific learning as a neuroscientist studying the effects of drugs. Although the two are not always joined seamlessly, they give him a rare insight into the often deep misunderstanding of illegal drugs, with which he attempts to turn sensationalist, stereotypical views on their head.

By telling his own life story, Hart gives us a fascinating insight into the cultural mores of his community, growing up on the streets, and the racism he has faced throughout his life. Now a distinguished scientist, he reflects on his childhood with a new understanding, applying his scientific knowledge to reassess the path that led him to a career in academia, while avoiding the circle of drugs, addiction and prison in which many of his family and friends got caught up.

Hart unravels the common perception that drugs and drug addiction are the cause of many of society‘s problems. While he doesn’t argue that illegal drugs have no negative effects, he takes the reader through his journey of discovery: that the pharmacology of the drugs themselves is not the cause of our social ills – rather, drugs are the symptoms of a broken society, masking the underlying issues of unemployment, lack of education, poverty, racism, and despair. He argues that anti-drug policies are causing more harm than the drugs themselves, and are directly marginalising black people, poor communities and other minority groups.

He has seen this first hand, growing up, and his experiences are backed up by staggering statistics – that black people are up to five times more likely to be arrested than white people on drugs charges, and over 10 times more likely to be sent to prison for drugs offences, despite the fact that white and black people use drugs at similar rates.

Hart doesn’t simply look at the problem in terms of race, he also discusses the role that class plays in all of this. He challenges the stereotype of a drug user, emphasising how an overwhelming majority of drug users are not poor addicts: around 90% are casual users from a range of backgrounds who control and manage their drug use so it is not problematic. Yet these are not the voices we generally hear about in the media, from the government or in drug education.

Through his enlightening description of the “Rat Park” experiment of the 1970s, Hart details how rats in a social, enriched and engaging environment self-administer morphine on offer in their cages at far lower rates than rats kept in solitary and desolate cages with no alternatives on offer. Hart follows this idea in his own work with people, questioning accepted views on addiction; and as his drug users often choose financial or other rewards over doses of drugs, he challenges the idea that addiction is the inevitable consequence of drug use, but rather an attractive distraction for those without preferable alternatives. For those growing up in poverty, with limited support, and little to lose, it is their social environment which provides the conditions for addiction to take hold.

Through the details of his lab experiments with drug users, knitted with his personal first-hand experiences, Hart adds his voice to the argument for an end to the punitive war on drugs and a move towards policies based on hard evidence and human rights rather than sensationalism and irrational fear. It is a brave move forward for the debate.