Columbia professor talks about War on Drugs

Expert in drugs and its effects on America speaks to students and faculty at EMPAC

On Tuesday, September 30, the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences held its inaugural HASS Inquiry lecture. These lectures, of which two will be held this semester, are meant to fit in with the HASS Inquiry courses, which are classes that freshmen can take. HASS Dean Mary Simoni welcomed the audience and explained the HASS Inquiry courses and events. Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Associate Dean Nancy Campbell introduced the speaker, Dr. Carl Hart.

Elizabeth’s View

Overall, I really enjoyed the presentation. It displayed some of the theories on science that I have learned at RPI, namely how science and policy fit together. Part of Hart’s premise is that scare tactics have been used to dictate drug policy and even science. Hart discussed the myths that exist about drugs. Hart has researched the actual effects of drugs and has found that drug users do not necessarily have impaired cognitive abilities. Hart also showed the chemical similarities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, as well as between meth and Adderall. Based on his research, Hart concluded that providing attractive alternatives, such as meaningful employment, decriminalizing drugs, and treating possession like a traffic violation instead of jailing, and trusting science instead of emotion would decrease drug related crime.

However, I did find it a bit “dumbed down” in some areas. This is probably because I am a graduate student in HASS and the lecture was geared towards freshmen. Parts of the science presented could have been explained more. Social science has a bad rap for not being scientific, and, while Hart is a neurobiologist and that discipline is closer to hard science, I still would have liked for there to be more data and explanation to show hard conclusions to freshmen who might be skeptical about social science. There was a lot of background that could have been shorter to allow more time for the studies and data.

After Hart finished, the audience had a chance to ask questions. I asked for clarification on one part of the presentation where Hart had argued that a new definition of racial discrimination was needed. Hart had explained that crack cocaine possession penalties resulted in a lot more African Americans in prison than whites. He explained that this was racial discrimination despite legislators not intending for disparate racial effects. I asked for clarification because the law and legislators might not necessarily be racist, but those who enforce it may be, and that could be the cause of the racial disparity. Hart answered that it was more of a structural issue than that the legislators themselves being racially discriminatory. While I didn’t have time to ask more since many people had questions, I also wondered whether the racial disparity could be due in part to income or another factor. I would also have liked to seen racial discrimination by law enforcement addressed.

Overall, I enjoyed the lecture. I am not very familiar with effects of drugs on the human body, other than the typical “don’t use them–they’re bad.” I do think it is good to be informed of the exact effects as we make policies. Hart did not advocate the use of drugs, but he did note that many drug users have gone on to be competent leaders of society, including our current President, Barack Obama.

Geoff’s View

Before I talk about the presentation, I think I should make it clear that I actually have knowledge of Hart prior to his speech, specifically through my viewing of the documentary The House I Live In. This film is about the drug war in America, and how its entire system works against those impoverished and of African American descent. In this film, Hart plays an interesting role as not only a black man who is an expert in drug research, but as a person affected by the laws. In 2000, Hart discovered that he had fathered a son when he was a teenager, and that his newly found son had dropped out of high school and was being charged for the sale of cocaine in Florida. In the movie, Hart was one of the most powerful characters, having such a profound understanding of drugs in America as a researcher and as someone directly affected by the laws surrounding it.

That’s what brings me to one of the most disappointing parts of the presentation for me, the lack of personal connection in Hart’s speech. At the beginning of the lecture, Hart made it clear that he would not be discussing his personal life since it is a tough topic for him, which is understandable, but it was hard not to be disappointed in not hearing more about his personal story, without of course reading his recently published book.

In terms of the actual talk, I was on the same page with Elizabeth in how most of the information was rather basic, but it was nice to hear Hart’s opinions in person. The only issue I had with Hart’s statements was how sweeping he was with acceptance that street drugs are not as bad as they are portrayed in the public. While I agree that effects of drugs on the body may be exaggerated, he ignored completely how unsafe the production of many of these drugs are, and how a large part of the criminal nature of the drugs is based around its sale by gangs to fund their illegal enterprises. As a whole, I think the talk is a great introduction to understanding drugs in America and how complex of an issue it has evolved into, so I would implore anyone who wants to learn more about this topic to see Dr. Hart if he comes to speak again.