Focus On People Doing Good, Not Doing Drugs

By Dr. Carl Hart

woman with hands outstretched to sky

Why do people who previously had problems related to their drug use introduce themselves by telling us the length of their sobriety? That’s what I was thinking as I sat and listened to a group of “recovering” faith leaders among others. I had been invited to speak about my research and views on drug addiction. Around the room, we went. “Hi, I’m Janet and I’ve been clean for 20 years… I’m John and I’ve been in recovery for addiction the past 12 months.” Each person proudly proclaimed how long she/he had been abstinent. It was as if, the substance itself had been the problem, or as if, the outcome measure, abstinence, was a proxy for the speaker’s virtue. They had fought the devil and won.

As a neuropsychopharmacologist who has spent nearly 20 years studying the neurophysiological, psychological and pharmacological effects of recreational drugs, I found this scene surreal. Having given thousands of doses of these drugs to people and carefully studied their immediate and delayed responses, my findings show that the addictive potential of even the most vilified drugs such as crack cocaine or methamphetamine is not extraordinary. In fact, nearly 80 percent of all illegal drug users use drugs without problems such as addiction. In other words, drugs aren’t the devil or something that is inherently evil.

It’s true, some people – the other 20 percent or so – struggle to control their consumption of various substances, which have disrupted their ability to meet important obligations, including childcare, employment, social, etc. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the substance itself is the problem. People become addicted for a variety of reasons ranging from psychiatric disorders to economic desperation to underdeveloped responsibility skills. That is why it is, first, critically important to determine the reasons underlying each person’s addiction before perpetuating myths about the cause or intervening with half-baked solutions. For example, if a person is abusing alcohol to deal with anxiety or trauma, effective treatment of the psychiatric illness should lessen the abuse of alcohol. Likewise, providing responsibility skills to some addicts will go a long way in helping them temper their overindulgence in disruptive behaviors.

When it was my turn to speak, I started by acknowledging the fact that I had been unclean for the past 25 years. Although it wasn’t my intention, this remark proved provocative as it elicited perplexed stares from those listening. The goal wasn’t to advocate recreational drug use or to disclose my personal pleasures for some frivolous reason; rather, it was to draw attention to how some people in recovery, including the clergy, focus on less relevant and less important outcome measures such as sobriety duration. How well one meets their social, familial, and/or occupational responsibilities are considerably more vital outcome measures than simply abstaining from the use of a substance. I am far more concerned about an individual’s contributions to human rights or to her community than whether she used heroin recently.

For argument’s sake, though, suppose those in recovery announce their sobriety length to indicate a measure of self-control. Even still, this information is inadequate to determine whether self-control is being exercised for socially appropriate or desired purposes. It’s not difficult to imagine someone abstaining from alcohol use to avoid the potential cognitive dampening effects while they commit a crime or multiple crimes. Some may recall Bill Cosby’s anti-drug PSA from the 1970s urging young people to avoid amphetamines; he’s accused of drugging and sexually assaulting women during the same time.

Granted, I recognize the importance of exercising self-control. It allows many people to function better, especially in the face of competing demands. But, knowing something about one’s ability to exercise self-control in one limited domain provides virtually no  information about the type of person they are, about how well they care for their fellow citizens, particularly the least among us. These qualities, I had hoped, would have been emphasized during my meeting with the faith leaders. They weren’t.

There was a time, not long ago, when it was acceptable to ascribe human characteristics to drugs, blame them for our shortcomings, and exploit our fears about them as a distraction for other abhorrent behaviors. For decades, magazines and newspapers routinely ran stories connecting drugs to heinous crimes, and some even claimed that black people under the influence of cocaine were impossible to control even when bullets were fired into their hearts. Dr. Edward Williams wrote in his 1914 New York Times article entitled, NEGRO COCAINE “FIENDS” ARE A NEW SOUTHERN MENACE, “The drug produces…a temporary immunity to shock–a resistance to the knockdown effects of fatal wounds.” More than one hundred years later and armed with a voluminous scientific database, we no longer have an excuse for indulging in myths and misinformation about drugs. People in recovery should discard the public ritual of professing their clean time; it doesn’t convey relevant information. Instead, it misplaces the focus such that we have become more concerned about a person’s drug use than their character.

Dr. Carl L. Hart is an associate professor of psychology in the departments of psychiatry and psychology at Columbia University and is the author of the recently released book “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.” Twitter – @drcarlhart