Prof. rejects racial bias in criminal drug policy

By KAREN SHENG | April 20, 2017

Carl Hart, the Dirk Ziff Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, presented on racial discrimination in drug policy on Tuesday evening in Shriver Hall. His talk, “Drug Policy is Race Policy,” was a part of the JHU Forums on Race in America, a series designed to promote conversations about race and racism at Hopkins.

University Provost Sunil Kumar introduced Hart and commended him for speaking out on public policy.

“Dr. Hart asserts that science should write our policies, even if it makes us uncomfortable,” he said. “I congratulate you on your ability and your courage and, most importantly, your perseverance in making an important problem known to a broad audience.”

Hart has published many articles about neuropsychopharmacology and is the author of High Price, which received the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award in 2014. He is also the first tenured African-American professor in the sciences at Columbia.

Hart began by explaining how he approaches the discourse surrounding race.

“In America, we don’t usually talk honestly and candidly about race. Some people get offended. The goal is not to offend you, but I have to be honest,” he said. “I’m just deeply disappointed with our country, and I’m very passionate about what I do.”

According to Hart, one of the most important lessons he learned while conducting research for his book was that drugs have no inherent moral value until they are in a biological system. Although drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and opioids have addictive potential, he stressed that these stigmatized drugs also have positive uses. They can be used as local anesthetics, treatments for attention deficit disorder or even cough suppressants.

“These drugs, of course you can get in trouble with, but they’re not good or bad,” he said. “We need to remove that sort of language. If we don’t remove that language, it allows us to not only vilify the drug but the people that are associated with that drug use.”

He also learned that drug use is not drug abuse, since most drug users do not have an addiction problem.

“The vast majority of people that use drugs don’t have a problem with drugs,” Hart said. “They are responsible people that take care of their families, they take care of taxes, some of them go to Johns Hopkins University, some of them are invited here to be your distinguished speaker. I’m a drug user.”

Hart went on to say that the negative stigma surrounding drug abuse has made American drug law enforcement policy harsh and problematic.

“We have been allowed to deal with drug law enforcement in this way, because we have exaggerated the harmful effects of drugs,” he said. “The public thinks that we have to engage in these incredible, repressive policies in order to deal with drugs.”

He cited what he called the “racist” Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which mandated the same minimum five-year prison sentence for possessing five grams of crack cocaine as it did for possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Hart pointed out that although crack and powder cocaine are essentially the same chemically, crack cocaine was predominantly used within African-American communities.

“In the 1980s, we were compassionate then towards white cocaine users,” Hart said. “Just read the papers and go back. It’s just the black dealers... We were harsh towards, just as we are doing with heroin trafficking today.”

Hart said that racial minorities are arrested for possession of heroin or marijuana at higher rates than white people, not because of biological differences but because of racism.

“We can’t say that we’re going to get those Black folks and Latino folks,” he said. “But we can say that we’re going to rid the community of crack cocaine, and we know who we’re going to get. We can say that. But we can’t explicitly say, ‘We’re going out to get those people.’”

He concluded that the narrative surrounding drug use and the legal status of drugs must change.

“Of course we see people who have problems related to drugs, but they also have many other problems, and it was just easier to blame the drugs. So we have to get out of the closet about drug use to change this narrative,” he said. “We have to work to change the legal status of drugs.”

Freshman Regjinae Davis commented on the relevance of Hart’s presentation to the Baltimore community.

“It’s a different perspective when you see students here engaging in recreational drug activities and then when you think about the Baltimore community at large and how that’s viewed publicly,” she said. “Like ‘Oh we’re Hopkins students, we’re good students, we can do drugs and have fun’ and down the street there’s somebody being arrested, being killed for doing the same exact thing.”

Freshman Frank Guerriero also enjoyed Hart’s presentation.

“I think that he’s, generally speaking, a model academic,” Guerriero said. “I think the passion with which he speaks and the impact that he can have is profound.”

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