“Heroin, for me, is a good way to reflect on my day,” says Dr. Carl Hart. “It helps me be more forgiving and generous.”
For years, Hart has lectured and given interviews to push past decades of drug war propaganda based on what critics consider classist and racist stereotypes. Instead of the “addict” or “crack fiend,” he proposed another image: drug users as good citizens.
Status quo defenders criticized his message. When his second book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear was published in 2021, the opening line sparked outrage. “I am an unapologetic drug user,” he wrote.
Critics took aim. Some conservatives used barely disguised racism. Liberal commentators expressed fears about promoting addiction. High profile Black media accused him of endangering people. Why the anger?
Hart used his life as direct evidence in the court of public opinion that the myth of the drug addict deserves to be challenged. Hart sees this anger as based on a fear similar to the terror that drove racial segregation; it is an irrational reaction to a threat that does not exist. In order to defuse the rage, Hart works the Black Freedom Movement’s rhetorical tradition. His intent is to integrate the last outcastes of American society, its drug users.
The Pursuit of Happiness
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” asked Frederick Douglass in an 1852 speech in New York. “I answer, a day that reveals to him…the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license, your national greatness, swelling vanity.”
One hundred and sixty-nine years later, Hart uses that rhetorical strategy to expose the hypocrisy of American freedom contrasted against the reality of mass incarceration. He writes in Drug Use for Grown-Ups, “pursuing happiness is the ‘foundation of liberty.’ This idea is the core of the Declaration of Independence, the document that gave birth to our nation…The use of drugs in the pursuit of happiness, in my view, is arguably an act that the government is obliged to safeguard.”
Black American writers have long passed down this tradition of holding America’s feet to the fire. It entails using one’s own life and body as evidence of American identity while condemning the racism that betrays the nation’s ideals. It began as early as 18th Century poet Phillis Wheatley and 19th Century Abolitionist David Walker, and continued straight to Martin Luther King Jr. and Black Lives Matters founder Alicia Garza.
What is vital to grasp is integration was never a one-way street. Some did practice it as a form of the respectability politics that poet Langston Hughes warned against in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” He cited the “urge within the race toward whiteness” seen when kinky hair is straightened, a “white voice” is used in public, and reformist politics are embraced.
In parallel is a radical tradition in which Black intellectuals – most notably the writer James Baldwin, one of Hart’s heroes – practiced a form of “prophetic integration.” The importance of it is defined in Dr. Christopher Z. Hobson’s book, James Baldwin and the Heavenly City: Prophecy, Apocalypse, and Doubt. The prophet, whether religious or secular, envisions a new future (however seemingly impossible), bears witness to hidden desires and speaks for the outcast. It is an approach to integration that demands America make room for more people. Often ridicule or rage greets this person.
Drug Use for Grown-Ups fits within this prophetic tradition. Using science and vignettes, Hart speaks of the common desire to change one’s consciousness. He proposes a legal framework that would integrate drug users, the last American outcasts, into the mainstream. He asks for society to move beyond psychedelic exceptionalism and accept that many chemicals “can be used safely to enhance many vital human activities.” Importantly, he rejects a drug war approach to addiction which is not supported by science. In addition, Hart cautions against using addiction as a scapegoat for problems that politicians seem incapable of fixing, while calling for accessible testing so drug users won’t die from contaminants.
The man caught Hell. Hart expected right wing media to be critical. The liberal critics caught him off guard. The harshest voices came from some in Black media, who refused to hear what he actually said, holding on to the myth of the “drug fiend” out of their personal pain or motivated by cynical media politics.
Through a Prism Darkly
As soon as Drug Use for Grown-Ups dropped, Hart was hazed by the media. Political ideology became a prism that distorted the book’s message. When his first book High Price came out, Fox News’ John Stossel opened a 2013 interview saying, “Dr. Hart, why should we believe you? You look like a drug dealer.” Hart’s recent Fox Business appearance was more collegial. But in a 2021 article, the New York Post said he had a “fondness for heroin” and painted a lurid portrait of him as a chronic druggie. The City Journal reported that Hart “uses drugs copiously” and faults his research as misleading, citing one study that shows when given test strips that prove contaminants, users “didn’t take smaller amounts” or go “slower.” The critical review unintentionally reinforces Hart’s argument for government regulation of drugs.
Many liberal commentators anxiously wrung their hands over his brazenness while repeating cliches about addiction. The New York Times reviewer admitted, “It’s not easy to square all that I’ve learned about this drug with the image I also hold of Hart: a tenured professor.”
The issue was also taken up by Dr. Sally Satel in The Wall Street Journal, who agreed with many of Hart’s points, but cautioned against a full embrace. “Mr. Hart, in his experiments, administered pharmaceutically pure drugs at controlled doses in a safe environment—conditions not to be taken for granted in real life,” she wrote.
Speaking to Lucid News, Satel said, “What the chemicals have is necessary but not sufficient to lead instantly to addiction.” She pushed back forcefully against the “instant addiction” model promoted in the Hulu series Dopesick. “It’s wrong in so many ways. Addiction is an interactive problem shaped by context.”
In her academic article, “Dark Genies, Dark Horizons: Riddle of Addiction,” Satel presents a detailed map of the complex forces that drive abuse. Satel said she believes in the “self-medication model.” For people suffering from trauma, drugs can make them “feel normal for the first time.” The new generation of addiction specialists, she said, “have social justice as their mission but I don’t think that’s good.” When asked about her reaction to Hart’s book, Satel chided, “Drugs are already available. That ship has sailed. I don’t think anyone in the ghetto is going to say ‘Well Carl Hart said it was okay.’ There’s good reasons why they can’t.”
Hart received different lines of criticism from some in the Black media, who attacked him as an irresponsible and an out-of-touch elitist. In essence, he says that it is poverty and trauma that cause drug use to fall into addiction, not the chemicals themselves. More so, we have to accept grown-up drug use as the first step to a scientifically based policy approach. A split exists between Black audiences who hear him, like in a 2013 talk in Harlem, and Black pundits fixated on drug war myths.
Two high profile examples are an interview with Angela Rye from March, 2021 cheekily titled “Just Say Yes…to Drugs Tho?” and Hart’s February, 2021 appearance on Hot 105.1’s popular show The Breakfast Club, where he was raked over the coals. Rye wept about a cousin who used dirty needles, caught HIV and died. “What I would be loath to do,” Rye said, “is to tell people that drugs haven’t had the impact that they think it has.” Implicit in her critique is that Hart was an Ivy League academic who lost touch with the pain on the street.
On the Breakfast Club, the critique soured into an ad hominem attack when Charlamagne tha God asked, “I’m watching your body language and I see you shaking and I’m like is he going through a withdrawal?” Hart shot back, “Give me a break man.” Hart noted that this was a telling moment, with Charlamagne repeating a racist stereotype about Black men to score points.
After the tense interview, Hart had words for the hosts. “DJ Envy and Charlamagne tha God are punk ass motherfuckers,” he told Lucid News. “They couldn’t face me after the interview. They are not real brothers. Their job is to protect the interests of who they work for.”
The Hart of the Matter
Conflicting images of Hart exist side by side in the media. He’s a druggie. He’s an elitist. He’s a cold scientist with no empathy. Hart rejects all of them as inaccurate. Rather, he sees himself in the Black prophetic tradition of Frederick Douglass and Angela Davis. But what drives him through the gauntlet of criticism…is guilt.
In Drug Use for Grown-Ups Hart reflected on his early years as an expert in drug policy when he kept his own use secret. “I still haven’t gotten over the profound regret I feel. Whenever I think about the traitorous role I played in vilifying crack and the people who were targeted.”
In the 2012 documentary The House I Live In, Hart visited his old family home in Miami and ruminated on the close calls. He said, “Growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s many of my friends and family got caught up in drug use.” In another scene, he was in court as his son faced drug charges. The love and pain for his child, struggled on his face.
He knows drug users and dealers. They are relatives and even his own child. As he told Lucid News, the stereotypes about users and dealers are dangerous, including the use of dehumanizing labels like “crack heads.”
“There’s a reason we’re paranoid,” he said, “The stuff David Chappelle does about drugs is wrong. Or Biggie’s Ten Crack Commandments, people believe that’s reality. Most of it comes from the Godfather.” He doesn’t spare today’s most popular music, Hip Hop. “Rappers claim to be forward thinking on cannabis but besmirch users of other drugs.”
Crack fiend, crack baby, crack war: the stereotypes are decades old. In 1989, Old School rappers released “Self Destruction,” a stop-the-violence anthem from East Coast stars as a plea to brothers on the street. In 1991 and 1992 there was a one-two punch in the films New Jack City and Deep Cover, which showed explicit scenes of a crack factory and a speech by a DEA agent about crack babies to Russel Stevens (played by Lawrence Fishburne). Chappelle’s Show came in 2003, which was after the crack era but recycled its tropes for laughs, specifically in the crack-head character Tyrone Biggums who got into Stepin Fetchit antics with super-human crack strength and who would suck a dick for a dime.
As Hart points out in his book, reinforcing race and class stereotypes like the Brute, the racist image of a Black men as aggressive and violent, contributed to the flow of money to mass incarceration instead of treatment. The Drug War was a jobs program for towns hurt economically by globalization.
This understanding led Hart to come out of the drug user closet. In the process, he forces us to ask a deeper question: are Black men allowed to “let go” and chill, maybe even feel transcendent pleasure? He told Lucid News, “I felt free in Bogata after having some good Columbian cocaine, or in Brussels where people danced free on MDMA, no worries in the world, all the structures of society we set up so you were protected. It was beautiful and euphoric. I was able to let go and feel appreciation.”
In his book, Hart critiques the drug war and demonstrates how poverty and trauma contribute as much, or more, to addiction than the chemicals themselves. But Hart resists accepting any political label. When Angela Rye tried to pin him down on his politics, Hart replied, “I’m not on any team,” and later said, “don’t put me in a box.” He prefers to be seen as a scientist, rather than an activist. But many of Hart’s allies in the drug reform arena have advocated for policies that would decrease poverty and reduce trauma, like Universal Basic Income, Medicare for All, affordable housing and a Green Deal jobs program of the kind promoted by Democratic Socialists.
In the prophetic tradition in which Hart places himself, many Black women and men found their visions aligned with the left. Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis were Communists. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a Poor People’s March and advocated Democratic Socialism. More recently Nina Turner from the Sen. Bernie Sanders campaign vied for a Senate seat.
Hart follows a specific tradition that is centuries old. He demands we integrate the last outcasts of America, narcotics users and dealers, by living up to the ideals of liberty and safeguarding the practice of being free. If Douglass asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” then Hart asks now, “What to the drug user is the Declaration of Independence?”
Image: Nicki Adams with adapted image from Penguin Random House