In 1971, three years before he would be forced from presidential office, Richard Milhous Nixon said to hell with former president Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty—an effort that was showing some promise as the numbers of Black people struggling in the economic margins had begun a slow spiral downward. Still, “Tricky Dicky” Nixon said poverty wasn’t the problem. Drugs were.
And so began the war against drugs, America’s other long, national nightmare (this one even more unwinnable than the one in Vietnam). Four decades, two million prisoners, and literally countless avoidable deaths from preventable overdoses and infected needles later, voices once considered too radical for primetime or non-profit funding have moved center stage. Perhaps nowhere has a voice been more resonant in a single place than in Dr. Carl Hart’s profoundly impacting new memoir, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery that Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.
In a deeply personal tome, Dr. Hart (the first Black man to achieve tenure in the sciences at Columbia University) describes what one might call an idiosyncratic path into academe, one populated with stories that unfold like the Notorious B.I.G.’s. The book opens with a story about Dr. Hart’s dad, a Black plant manager who, in mitigating the isolation of his work and the dehumanization borne of Jim Crow, spent his weekends soaked in alcohol.
That made young Carl and his siblings outliers in the childhood imagery that colors our collective imaginations, if not our real lives. To wit, the Hart kids hated coming home from classes on Friday because, inevitably, the family was drowned by daddy’s whiskey rages, the worst of which had his mama on the business end of a hammer. She survived the assault, as did the children—but so did the emotional and psychic dismemberment that unbounded violence invites.
With this as the opener, Dr. Hart’s story winds us through details of living that hip-hop has placed on a worldwide dais. It elevates the ability to survive horror to a place that has a dangerous sexy appeal to our collective machismo but does little to challenge why we have to survive such anti-life craziness in the first place. And nothing was more crazy—or defining—for the boy who moved from slinging to science, than the Crack Era.
Like many, I remember the explosion that was crack: in Brooklyn, where I live, it was the sister with her knee popping, standing on the corner of Fulton Street and Washington Avenue; it was the multicolored vials that lined Classon Avenue’s sidewalks; and how you couldn’t walk down Franklin Ave because its split territory and crossfire created a nightly repetition of blood. But in my memory, the worst stories came out of East New York’s Pink Houses: the 11-year-old girl who caught a bullet meant for another as she jumped double-dutch.
And we all did the collective eye roll when First Lady Nancy Reagan started her Just Say No campaign, but bowed at the feet of her husband when he called for stepping up the drug war. Ronald Reagan’s “war” had no impact on drug usage rates, and exacerbated the very violence that would dismantle the lives of so many. We believed crack was certainly evil incarnate. Even we who hypothesized that the CIA put crack in the ghetto to raise money for the Contras also believed the drug was specially formulated to decompensate our brains.
But Dr. Hart’s research asks: How do you know what you think you know?
If we believed the pop culture image of the desperado crawling on the floor looking for dropped pieces of rock, the mother hawking her preteen for just one more hit, then the people Hart has worked with over the years to do his landmark research on addiction treatment (and who he gave pharmaceutical grade smokable cocaine, i.e. crack, to) don’t make sense.
Working with people who smoked crack four or five times a week, in an effort to understand what happens in the brain when crack is introduced, Hart provides the drug to smokers in a regulated environment. They take a hit and are given the choice of another, or five dollars. Hart records one brother who did what so many others did: he took the five bucks. The rejecting of the drug by committed crack users—not once but regularly—flies directly in the face of the images we were sold.
Now Hart doesn’t argue that crack ought to suddenly become a party gift. However, he says, it also doesn’t make people the super-predators we said it did—and erected laws that reflected that notion. In his words, there is
[T]he potential for abuse and harm caused by drugs [but] there has been extensive misinterpretation of the scientific evidence and considerable hyping of anecdotal reports… [that have] not only wrongly stigmatized drug users and abusers [but] also led to misguided policy making.
Arguably, the most offensive outcome of bad science came in the form of sentencing for those convicted of crack law violations, as opposed to those convicted of powder cocaine law violations. The original law created a disparity in which five grams of crack got offenders a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison; it took 500 grams of powder to trigger the same time. Why? Well, cocaine was associated with the rich and White; crack with the poor and Black.
The sentencing guidelines were, then, a direct assault on our community (which, by the way, uses the drug less than our less targeted White counterparts). Of late, we’re seeing shifts in the sentencing—the Obama administration reduced the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1—but this is still insufficient given that crack and powder cocaine are pharmaceutically the same drug.
And more, if minimally 80 percent of the drug-using population in America actually never develop a problematic relationship with a given drug (as Hart and others have widely documented), why then are there only images of the madman or -woman available to us? What else might be afoot here when it comes to crack, meth and other drugs used by more marginalized sectors of our citizenry? Consider that we don’t do this with our nation’s primary drug of choice: alcohol. The image of the drunk is the outlier.
The bottom line is that Hart shoots for an understanding of drugs, how they impact us, and how racism impacts the policy and treatment of people who use drugs. Truth told, we probably aren’t any more afraid of the roughly 10-20 percent of people who are problematic users any more than folks in the 1890s were afraid of their White female friends and relatives who used cocaine, some problematically. The difference then was that we thought of those women as humans who deserved compassion and care, as something like documentary director Eugene Jareki’s The House I Live In points out.
But undergirded by 500 straight-through-the-heart years of de facto dehumanization of our children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and homies to the hate of ourselves that hate produced, we drank the Kool-Aid. We bought into the lies, consciously or not, and gladly separated ourselves from those “other Blacks.” We called them two-dollar hoes, baseheads, nasty crackheads. Gone were our friends and family.
And we never seemed to consider that the arbiters of our problems, including problematic drug use, are likely more attributed to joblessness, isolation and a lack of social anchoring—and the drug war that created a deadly, underground marketplace. Hart’s argument, capsuled, seems to be that rather than trying to remake the Black brain, we undo the policies that cause the Black burden.
Nowhere in the book is that made more poignantly than when he discusses his own fears for his own Black boys, one of whom has cycled in and out of the prison system. He argues that far more deadly to our babies than the drugs themselves has been the drug war, its racist law enforcement and its dumbing down or complete dismissal of life-saving information. Like Hart, I am a parent, and like Hart, I too had to cede one beloved, my stepson, to the vicious hamster wheel that is drugs, prison, drugs again, prison again. And who knows where these losses takes us, how they leave us?
To tell that story, we have needed a voice, threadbare and devoid of Sunday service accouterment in its offering: our policies were based on lies and driven by racism. They provide virtually no help for the 10-20 percent of our citizens who struggle mightily with substance misuse. And they ignore the fact that most people who use drugs do so without experiencing their most harmful effects.
So as I look at the projects that poet Askia Touré said we allowed to replace the pyramids, I’m thinking that if these are the broke-down, dysfunctional houses that Nixon built in 1971, let 2013 be the year we build a house, its foundation truth and compassion. Ultimately that’s what Dr. Hart—this scholar, father, brother, son, friend—is asking us to do: begin once again to lay the bricks to build a place we can all, even the least of these, finally call home.