Commentary: The High Price of the War on Drugs

A new book heats up the dialogue about drug laws in America.

Posted: 06/21/2013 05:44 PM EDT

A new ACLU report exposes for the entire country what many marginalized communities know all too well and for far too long.

"The war on marijuana has disproportionately been a war on people of color," according to the ACLU Criminal Law Project Director, Ezekiel Edwards. In conjunction with racialized disparities, the report also notes the time-consuming and costly nature of the war on marijuana.

The solution? According to the ACLU, states need to work harder to “legalize, regulate and tax marijuana.”

A step in the right direction? Perhaps.

If that proposal makes you uncomfortable, try swallowing the pill that everything you thought you might have known about drugs could be all wrong, anyway. The new book High Price: A Neuroscientists Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society by Dr. Carl L. Hart, associate professor at Columbia University (co-author of the number-one academic textbook on addiction and Columbia’s first tenured Black scientist), has quickly started a heated dialogue over the past few weeks.

Hart's proposal that all drugs, not just marijuana, need to be decriminalized, has some people uneasy. After all, many of us have grown up on slogans and clichés of “just say no” and “all it takes is one hit.” Hart wants drug policy to put down the contorted “media emphasis on extreme pathological behaviors of crack users” and instead, make the laws based on scientific evidence. Such contortions about drugs have often “led people to believe incredible stories about it” resulting in considerable harm to communities already struggling with marginalization.

Some of you might be saying, "Wait, that’s a big jump from marijuana to crack!" One of the problems, Hart offers, has been that people have been taught to rank and fear drugs differently based on faulty information from people who aren’t actually experts on drugs. This misinformation, he argues, is one reason, among others, why so many are in jail for marijuana and why crack cocaine sentencing guidelines are (still) so out of whack today.

In a recent NPR interview, Hart suggests that we’ve often allowed the wrong groups (such as police officers) to make policy decisions and recommendations based on mere anecdotal evidence about addiction, rather than actual scientific proof. Above all, he wants society and those that make drug policy to separate myth from reality, for the consequences of “exaggerating the effects of drugs” are way too high for too many people.

Hart’s journey has taken him from using and selling drugs on the mean streets of Miami to regulating grant-funded labs where he’s earned the name “Drug data pusher” for his controversial method of working directly with regular users who are offered a choice: a hit of crack cocaine or cash money. To the surprise of many, Hart notes, users overwhelmingly choose monetary compensation over the offered drug. High Price notes that such myths have even ignored a number of governmental and other scientific studies which suggest that “even at [the peak of crack cocaine use] only 10-15 percent of crack cocaine users became addicted.”

More than 20 years of documenting the decision-making processes and behaviors of drug users leads Hart to the conclusion that things need to change. Hart wants to see changes in drug policy starting with a rehabilitation of how society thinks and talks about addiction. Of course, wrapped up in all of this, is “…the way we think about race in this society.”

We all have, according to Hart, the capacity to begin enacting such change. “The No. 1 thing we have to do is think,” he says. High Price starts a conversation that doesn’t just rehash what so many in poor Black and brown communities have known for decades, rather, it gives an initial blueprint for making some much needed changes in the country.

The book is just as personal a memoir as it is a scientific call to action. Degree, occupation and white lab coat might, at first-glance, separate this scientist from his patients, but Hart is calling all people, not just policy makers, to strike a balance between head and heart

Monica R. Miller, Ph.D., is the author of Religion and Hip Hop and teaches courses on religion in contemporary culture. Miller will join the faculty of Lehigh University as assistant professor of religion and Africana studies in the fall of 2013.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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