intvw by Junauda Petrus
photo by Béatrice de Géa
I don't intend for this to take on a political tone. I'm just here for the drugs.
-Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady, 1980’s Just Say No campaign
The simple yet defining rhetoric of “Just Say No” was preached in commercials by a trembling and concerned first lady. The D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program was taught to children by cops in the classroom. Crack cocaine had newly arrived on the streets and was mythologized as a shattering kryptonite that destroyed lives at the first hit. The government was going after the petty local drug dealer with mandatory incarceration minimums of exorbitant lengths for non-violent offenses. It was the 1980’s and the government was blowing our high.
Dr. Carl Hart is unique in that his credibility is based just as much in his brilliant findings as a scientist as in his experience as a Black man growing up in a rough part of Miami during the Reagan era. A warm and personable man with rootsy dreads with knowledge in culture and science, Dr. Hart now shares his scientific findings with accessibility, realness and passion seldomly seen in white coats.
Through the validity of scientific proof found in his extensive research, Dr. Hart is working to transform our society’s perceptions around drugs and ultimately change the laws that justify racial profiling and mass incarceration of Black and Latino communities. He shares with Greenroom what inspired his career in pharmacology (the science of drugs), how the decriminalization of all drugs would impact Black and Brown lives, and how future generations should reclaim and redefine their understanding of drugs and their interactions with them.
Greenroom: You are a scientist who has done extensive and groundbreaking research on the effects of drugs and addiction on people. Additionally, you have first-hand experience with the impact of our nations “war on drugs” from your youth in Miami. How has the intersection of research and cultural experience defined your work and purpose?
Dr. Carl Hart: So I started doing this kind of work because I wanted to contribute to the community. Mainly, I wanted to figure out the neurobiological mechanisms responsible for drug addiction. So I reasoned that if I could solve the drug addiction problem, I could solve the problems that my community and black communities throughout the United States face, because I believed, the main problem was drugs, and if you got rid of drugs, you can deal with poverty and you could deal with crime. I could make a contribution because I had thought that I had done so much harm to the community by being a youth that engaged in petty crime, sold drugs and used drugs and... our society tells us that, that is a major sort of thing. That selling the little drugs in the community is say comparable to the President of the United States not calling racial discrimination where it is at...That does far more harm than someone selling drugs.
GR: I experienced D.A.R.E. where our school actually had cops teaching this curriculum in the classroom. I was taught that drugs were bad, and that they are all bad in the same way. It is interesting to hear the perspective of someone who saw this particular narrative be placed, because as a young person I accepted these opinions on drugs as truth.
DCH: Yes, it really took off around 1982. So when you were really young, Nancy Reagan needed something to do and drugs was the kind of thing that allowed her to have a role. She was educating the country on what drugs do and don’t do, even though she knows nothing about pharmacology, but we kind of tolerated this from her. Which is remarkable, absolutely remarkable. When I go and listen to what she was saying about drugs and what drugs do, one of her favorite things to say was “drugs replace things, like love.” What the? What?! And she would say these kinds of things. She would tell the country, “when it comes to drugs, we should be intolerant and inflexible.” You teach your children to be tolerant, you teach them to be flexible.
GR: You speak to the fact that there are people who live with regular drug use and function normally and responsibly in society. Do you hope to see other drugs besides Marijuana also being decriminalized? How do you think that would impact society?
DCH: In my book, I argue that we should decriminalize all drugs. Decriminalization is different than legalization. Decriminalization simply means, they will not go to jail for drug offenses or possessing drugs. Eighty percent of the people arrested in our country for drugs are for simple possession. A huge number of people would not get a criminal record as a result. So that would have a huge impact, immediately. Other countries, Portugal and the Czech Republic, they already do this sort of thing. They been doing it since the late 1990’s. So we would now, take away this reason for arresting all of these Black and Brown people. Decrease the likelihood of these Black and Brown folks getting records. We would enhance their likelihood of getting jobs because they don’t have a blemish on their record.
GR: You have mentioned being aided on your academic journey by government programs in science and medicine. Do you see any potential to link these type of programs with treatment for recovering addicts?
DCH: Instead of putting these people in jail for example we could offer them job training and we could make sure there are jobs associated with the training when they finish. Jobs that are meaningful. We certainly can do that. The money that we spend on these prisons could be used in a way that helps people to get skills and jobs and pay taxes...If you think about where the prisons are located, they are predominantly located in all white communities. Where locals, mostly guys with limited education have jobs as prison guards. There are restaurants and hotels, around these prisons that are primarily employing white people, who have limited education and those sorts of things. So we have decided that we would rather make sure these people are employed as opposed to Blacks and Latinos who are going to jail.
GR: I grew up in the ‘80’s where we had D.A.R.E. in the classroom taught by cops, and “Just Say No” and eggs frying to simulate the impact of drugs on your brain. Drugs were taught to be harmful, addictive and overindulgent. What do you see the role of drugs is in society? How should my generation expand their minds around drugs?
DCH: We should think about drugs the same way think about sex. Sex can be pleasurable, but their can be STI’s. They teach folks how to minimize the dangers and enhance the benefits. Your generation has to think about drugs like any other activity where they are trying to keep people safe.
Dr. Carl Hart will be the keynote speaker at the Legalize It, Minnesota! Conference THIS SATURDAY, October 18th. For more information visit: www.legalizeitminnesota.com