Coming Out Of The Chemical Closet
Reason magazine|May 2021
Neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart says most of what the public knows about drugs is both scary and wrong.
By Nick Gillespie

Carl Hart is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Columbia University. He served in the United States Air Force, earned a Ph.D., and raised three children to adulthood. As he writes in his new book: “Each day, I meet my parental, personal, and professional responsibilities. I pay my taxes, serve as a volunteer in my community... and contribute to the global community as an informed and engaged citizen.”

So it may surprise some people to learn that not only has Hart been responsibly using heroin regularly for more than five years but he’s willing to tell people about it. He says his experiences with heroin make him a more forgiving and empathetic person, partner, and father.

Hart’s path to drug use started in Miami in the 1980s—not by taking drugs but by trying to get people off them. When the media blamed crack for unemployment and murder in the community where he grew up, Hart decided to study neurobiology to develop medications to help people with drug addictions. Now he realizes that was naive: The crisis wasn’t really about crack.

In his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear (Penguin Press), Hart writes about being one of the millions of Americans who use drugs regularly and lead normal lives. “The vast majority of them are middle-class, responsible folks” who are in the chemical closet, he says. Hart hopes to reach these people and those who already know and love them. Perhaps politicians will eventually come along for the trip. But for now, Hart says, President Joe Biden “doesn’t know this issue, doesn’t care about this issue.”

In January, Reason’s Nick Gillespie spoke with Hart via Zoom about the science of drug use and how the media flub their coverage of addiction and overdose deaths.

Reason: Give me the elevator pitch of your new book.

Hart: Well, the elevator pitch is found in the subtitle: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. What I’m trying to do is ask Americans to think about their own liberty, and not in this jingoistic false patriotic sense, but in terms of what the Declaration of Independence guaranteed: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of us, as long as we don’t disrupt anybody else’s ability to do the same. That means we get to live our life as we see fit. Taking drugs can be a part of that. It is a part of that for a lot of Americans.

I’m trying to show people that our promise, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is inconsistent with our practice, this banning of drugs—drugs that people use in their pursuit of happiness as an expression of their liberty.

You point out in the book that we’re using drugs all the time, whether it’s caffeine, alcohol, or tobacco. Then we have what the government calls illicit drugs. Are there any drugs that you would say are bad that should be banned?

There are some drugs which we try to identify that are toxic. There was a drug called MPTP that we banned in the 1980s because we found out that it destroyed specific brain cells. That’s good to ban those kinds of drugs that no one’s seeking for their effects. Even when people accidentally made MPTP, they were seeking heroin. If heroin was available, nobody would be interested in MPTP. So sure, there are drugs that we learned are so toxic that we have to ban them. But certainly drugs like cocaine, heroin, MDMA [a.k.a. ecstasy], none of those drugs are anywhere near that category.

As you were writing the book, you were in your fifth year of using heroin. That just blows people’s minds, the idea that you could be a heroin user and something other than a homeless person. But define “drug use for grown-ups.” What is a grown-up?

I lay out in the prologue that this book is for grown-ups: people who are responsible, they handle their responsibilities, they are members of their community. This book is not for people who are immature, who are not handling their responsibilities. If they are not handling their responsibilities before drug use, they will be irresponsible after drug use. But what will happen is that people will blame drugs, when in fact drugs had nothing to do with it. You just have an irresponsible person.

You write early on that “it has taken me more than two decades to come out of the closet about my personal drug use.” A question for you: What took so long?

Frankly, what took so long is that I was a coward. I was afraid of the blowback that would occur if I said, “Oh yeah, of course I do a little cocaine, MDMA, heroin.” Having traveled around the world for this book—I went to multiple countries and five continents—one of the things that was clear is that there are millions of people using these drugs, but they’re in the closet. Not only that, the vast majority of them are middle-class, responsible folks. We have this caricatured image of the drug user as being some irresponsible degenerate, which is not the case for most drug users.

Let’s talk about heroin. You come out of the chemical closet not simply as somebody who smokes weed but as a regular heroin user. Heroin conjures up all kinds of alarms for people. They think that if you even talk about heroin too much, you will become addicted to it. Media reports always say it’s like having 10,000 orgasms and you’ll never want to do anything else. So talk about your use of heroin. Isn’t this a dangerous, dangerous substance?

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