I’ve avoided posting about Carl Hart’s new book. Mostly because it seems likely to generate more heat than light and it strikes me as more likely to devolve into a battle in the culture wars rather than a serious science and policy exploration.
This morning I decided to listen to an interview with him. Most of his arguments sounded a lot like the libertarian arguments we’ve heard from Reason over the years. There was also reference to Portugal without any serious attention to the actual policy.
Steven Levitt: Literally everything we’ve talked about supports your argument. The one big chink in the armor that I see is those numbers who gave about addiction and abuse. I think people who are against legalization, they’re just gonna say look right now 30 million people use drugs, if you legalize it every teenager is gonna at least try drugs and people don’t have a very good idea of who’s gonna get addicted or not, so a bunch of kids, 10% of all the kids in America are gonna end up addictive these drugs and ruin their lives. Do you have a good counterargument to that?
Carl Hart: That’s some stupid shit. This notion that we should somehow ban an activity because we’re afraid of kids engaging in that activity–we should ban cars because we’re afraid of kids driving cars, or sex because of sexually transmitted infections. That’s a really ridiculous notion, but we all play into it. Parents still have the parent. And, these drugs are still illegal for kids to use and purchase. It annoys me when the kid argument is thrown into the mix because it immediately shuts down any sort of rational adult conversation about these things.
And, we do, by the way, have pretty good information about the likelihood of who will become addicted and who will not become addicted. If you have someone who does not have well-developed responsibility skills, that person is overtaxed with expectations… unrealistic expectations, the person has psychiatric illnesses or physical pain, has recently lost of middle-class paying job. All of these things certainly increase the likelihood of somebody meeting criteria for addiction.
One of the reasons that I came out about my own drug use is that I don’t worry about me ever becoming addicted. I assure you that won’t happen because I have all of these responsibilities that I love taking care of. I also know that people would love to see me have an addiction problem so they can say, ‘See, there’s a cautionary tale.’ That challenge I welcome. But, we tell people this nonsense like ‘you don’t know who’s gonna become addicted’ that’s bullshit. We do! And, those are the same people who get in trouble with a number of other issues in their life.
Hart has been promoted by a lot of recovery advocates as an important voice to elevate in advocacy and policy discussions.
To be sure, the risks of drugs are often overstated. Those framings of the risk often turn into reductive cultural understandings and policy options. This has led to bad policy and these reductive understandings have prevented us from changing course.
However, I don’t understand how assertions like the following advance recovery advocacy: 1) concerns about the prevalence of drug use and drug capture rates, are “some stupid shit”; and 2) we can confidently say who will and will not become addicted, and to question that is “bullshit.”
People like Nick Gillespie have been making these arguments for decades. Why are so many centering Hart? Particularly when his response to the legitimate concerns of many people affected by addiction and recovering parents is to ridicule the concern rather than respectfully discuss the trade-offs of policy options?
If we’re being honest, drug policy often seems to come down to choosing the least bad option and acknowledging that there are problems with every potential policy formulation. The kid question is an important question and the welfare of children (future adults) should be considered in policy formulation, rather than just confining our consideration to the rights of adults.
I suspect the attention is related to him raising some important questions at the right time. It seems we can explore those questions in a way that avoids ridiculing the concerns of many people who are affected by addiction, doesn’t risk stereotyping people with addiction, and keeps recovery centered.
NOTE: Hart’s discussion is much more productive in the second segment of the interview, where he discussed his concerns about the use of brain imaging studies and the pressures on researchers to “torture data” and produce findings. In other portions, like his representation of the relative risks of heroin use versus ECT and antipsychotics, his arguments strike me as specious.