Neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart

The author of High Price—a text that’s part memoir and part medical investigation—explains why the war on drugs is being fought with the wrong weapons.

Carl Hart is a groundbreaking neuroscientist, whose landmark, controversial research is redefining the understanding of addiction. An associate professor in the psychology and psychiatry departments at Columbia University, he's the first tenured African American professor in the sciences at the university and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. He's also a member of the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse. The Miami, FL native grew up in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods and struggled with balancing his former street life with his achievements today—a journey he details for the first time in his eye-opening memoir, High Price.


Tavis: By any measure, the so-called war on drugs has been a failure in this country. Figuring out not only the causes of addiction, physical and mental, but also how successfully to intervene has eluded both law enforcement and the medical profession.

Dr. Carl Hart who’s now a professor at Columbia University grew up in one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods and saw the ravages of addiction firsthand. He’s now written a powerful new text based not only on his own life, but also on research he’s conducted that calls into question many of our preconceived notions about the causes of addiction.

The text is called “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.” Dr. Carl Hart, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Dr. Carl Hart: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: When I saw this title, “High Price,” and got a chance to get into the text, I was not sure whether the title “High Price” has to do with society and the debt that we end up paying by doing or not doing certain things vis-à-vis the so-called drug war or whether or not that title, the “High Price,” had to do with your own life and the price that you have had to pay as a result of choices that you made. Am I right about both, either or neither?

Hart: You’re right about both and I’m glad that you mentioned both because oftentimes people don’t mention both. I mean, when we think about drugs and what we’re doing with drugs in terms of policy, the price is too high for our society, number one, particularly when we look at specific communities, communities that I care about, mainly poor people, Black people. The price is considerably too high.

And then when you think about me being the first tenured Black science professor at Columbia and then the price that one pays in order to achieve such an accomplishment, I’m saying the price is too high for people who will come up subsequently. And in the book, I’m trying to explain how we can lower the price for both.

Tavis: Let me start our conversation by talking about your own personal journey. It is a fascinating journey. I was gonna say it ends. It doesn’t end because you still got a lot in front of you, but it certainly has culminated at this point in your being tenured at a great institution like Columbia.

But there’s a bunch of stuff in the back story that I suspect many in your world didn’t know about until you had the courage to put this on paper. Speaking of high price, how concerned were you about the price that you might pay professionally when you came clean about your own past?

Hart: Well, I’m tenured now and, you know…

Tavis: That does help, doesn’t it [laugh]?

Hart: That certainly helps.

Tavis: I got to high-five. I like that answer, man [laugh]. I didn’t write the book ’til after I got tenured. I’m sorry, ba-da-bump. Go ahead.

Hart: Well, you know, when you think about being in science, in science, we are a conservative group. In the academy, in an Ivy League institution, we are also very conservative. So I worried considerably about that. But then I thought about my knowledge, what I know, what I’ve learned, and I thought it would be irresponsible if I didn’t share some of this stuff with people who were coming up after me.

I didn’t want young Black boys, girls, to think that they had to be perfect in order to get to where I’m at because by no means am I perfect nor was I perfect and I don’t want anybody somehow having a vision in the story that I was perfect, so therefore you must be perfect. So I hope the story helps people understand that you don’t have to be perfect and you can still make a contribution to this country.

Tavis: So for those who are watching right now and chomping at the bit to find out what we mean when we say you aren’t perfect, let’s unload some of this back story.

Hart: Yeah. So people oftentimes ask me like how did you get from Point A, growing up in the hood, selling drugs, using drugs, to Point B, being a tenured professor at Columbia? How’d you do that?

Number one, in high school when I was sort of entrenched in the street life, if you will, the major thing that kept me plugged in the mainstream was athletics. I played basketball throughout high school. I also played football, but I played basketball throughout high school. And in order to play basketball, you had to maintain a certain GPA, you know, high standards.

I think the standard was like a C or 2.0. You know, it’s not really high, but it was enough to make sure that I graduated from high school. So I stayed plugged in to high school because I knew I had to maintain that GPA in order to continue. That’s one thing.

Two, I had five sisters and they were all older than me and they functioned as surrogate mothers. I had a grandmother who was really strong, who doted on me, who wanted to make sure that I didn’t go off the beaten path, although I did. But I didn’t want to disappoint either my grandmother or my sisters in any sort of major way. So I knew I had to make sure I was plugged in enough so they could stay off of my back.

Number three, I didn’t get a basketball scholarship, but I had a guidance counselor who also liked me and she wanted to make sure that I left Miami or the Miami area after high school. So she had me talk to recruiters from the military. I eventually decided to go into the Air Force. In the Air Force, I served all of my time overseas in Japan and in England.

Now my time in England, I spent about three years in England. That time in England was critical because it was an English-speaking country that had a critique, a social critique, of the United States particularly as it related to race. And it was a critique that was mainstream in English.

Now I watched “Eyes on the Prize,” the civil rights film, learned about discrimination, racism, in the U.S. over the in U.K. I learned a considerable amount. You know, I had to go to England to really learn about American racism in a way that corroborated my reality. That was critical. I had mentors along the way in the military as well as in college.

When I got out of the military, I finished up my education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and I had some mentors who said, “You got what it takes. You should consider going to graduate school, getting a PhD in neuroscience.” I didn’t think I had what it took until somebody who had a PhD told me I had what it takes. So that mentorship was critical.

Then all along the way, in graduate school, postdocing, even to this day, mentors have been critical in my sort of development. I mean, I point all of this out in “High Price” so people could understand that I’m not special.

There are some structural, some other things that we can put in peoples’ way or in their environment to help them succeed. When I was coming up, we had programs in the summer for kids who were deprived like me where we could work in the summer and get money to have money for school clothes in the fall. Those programs are gone. With Reagan, those programs left.

My mom was on welfare my entire time in high school. She had eight children and we were on welfare throughout all of our childhood. Now all of those children are taxpaying citizens. But welfare as we knew it is no longer here. All of those programs helped to make sure that we had someone like me.

Tavis: With all of those mentors around – it’s a powerful narrative. With all those mentors around, how does one end up getting pulled into the drug game in the first place?

Hart: Well, you think about in high school, for example, I had mentors who were primarily males and primarily young males in their early 20s, their teens, so they were only a little bit older than me. And this is what young people were doing in order to be considered a man or what have you.

And the drug game that we were in, mind you, it was minor. It was selling a little marijuana at the time and we weren’t making any real money. Our main thing that we were doing, we were deejaying and we were – I did shows with Run-D.M.C., Luther Campbell, all of us, we all came up in that…

Tavis: That’s what got you in trouble right there, hanging out with Luther [laugh].

Hart: Well, you know…[laugh].

Tavis: I love Luther. That’s a whole other conversation for those who know the hip-hop game. But anyway, I digress on that. What has been, what is to this day now, the primary focus of your research?

Hart: The primary focus of my research is methamphetamine. What does methamphetamine do to cognitive functioning? There has been considerable amount of information, hysteria, surrounding that drug in the same way that we had hysteria surrounding crack cocaine in the mid-80s. So what I’m learning is that it’s just that, hysteria. We have exaggerated the effects of methamphetamine.

Tavis: You make the point in the text pretty powerfully that it’s not so much drugs as it is drug policy. Tell me what you mean by that.

Hart: So in this country, we have led to believe that it’s the drugs that cause communities to be the way they are. Now when you look at the evidence carefully, you say, okay, the vast majority of people who use crack cocaine, oh, 80%, 90% of them do so without a problem. They do so, they pay taxes, they go to work and so forth. So there’s a small percentage of people who have problems. So when you have this small percentage of people who have problems and the majority of them don’t, you can’t blame the drug. That’s one.

Also, I’ve brought people into the lab and I studied crack cocaine. When you provide people, say, with alternatives to the drug, they will choose the alternatives if the alternatives are attractive. We know this from having people in the lab who take crack cocaine. We also know this from the animal research. The same sort of thing is seen with research with laboratory animals. So this is not a surprise. What’s surprising is how the public has ignored the facts.

Tavis: So let me ask pointblank whether or not our drug policy is racist. And I ask that because, although the number – the ratio, that is – has gone down, when Bill Clinton who I like otherwise signed this racist crime bill into law, as far as I’m concerned, when you had to get caught with a hundred times more powder than crack cocaine to get the same sentence, we know that crack – if I could use the vernacular – crack is used in the streets, cocaine used in the suites.

But you got to get caught with a hundred times more powder than crack to get the same sentence. There’s some of us, yours truly included, who thought that law was racist. That number has gone down now to about 18 to 1, I think, in the Obama era, but it’s still not where it ought to be in terms of my own sense of things. But you’re the expert, you’re the researcher. Is our drug policy racist?

Hart: Well, as I pointed out in the book, so the policy you’re talking about was actually not signed by Bill Clinton. It was signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Tavis: Clinton had a chance to – Clinton reauthorized it.

Hart: Right, right.

Tavis: That’s what I mean. You’re right. Ronald Reagan initially did it; Clinton had a chance in his administration to undo it.

Hart: That’s right.

Tavis: But he reauthorized that crime bill so he – go ahead. Okay.

Hart: So when we think about that, Clinton certainly had an opportunity to equate the two and he declined to.

Tavis: That’s correct.

Hart: And so when you think of that, when you think about the science, the science does not support that. From a scientific perspective, the two drugs are the same. It would be the equivalent of punishing somebody who smoked marijuana a hundred times more harshly than somebody who takes it with brownies. Do you see the difference?

Tavis: Sure, absolutely, absolutely.

Hart: So we’ve known that in science for a long time. But in science, we haven’t made enough noise to say this is unfair. This is not right. In part, because in science we are conservative people. So, yeah, I agree that not only did Clinton decline to lessen this disparity, so too did George W. Bush. And Barack Obama in 2010, as you point out, signed legislation that decreased the disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, which is still unsatisfactory from a scientific perspective.

Tavis: So here’s your point. You’ve made this case a few times in this conversation that your community, that you are part of the scientific community that’s very concerned. I get that. But I don’t expect my scientists to play politics.

Hart: Right on.

Tavis: You know where I’m going with this.

Hart: Right on.

Tavis: I expect my scientists to give me the facts.

Hart: Right on.

Tavis: Now I expect politicians to play politics, but I expect scientists to put the facts on the table. And if you’re telling me that there really isn’t much distinction – because the argument was during the Reagan era and in the Clinton era.

One of the reasons why Bill Clinton signed onto that again as opposed to upending it was because the argument back in the day, as you know, was that crack is so much more harmful for you than powder cocaine is. So if you’re telling me now there isn’t much of a distinction, then why does the distinction still exist if not for race?

Hart: Ultimately, this is about race because it affected people, like you point out. The vast majority of people who were arrested under this law, 80-some percent, the vast majority are Black. So if we had the vast majority of people who look like the guys in Congress being arrested for this law, we know the law will change. That’s a fact.

So I agree, but the law itself is not racist. It is the enforcement of the law. So we place our law enforcement resources in communities of color, primarily Black communities. And when you do that, you’re gonna catch people committing crimes whether it’s crack cocaine or some other law.

I mean, I live in a relatively upscale neighborhood in New York. Now if you placed law enforcement officials in my community, particularly when it’s time for parents to take their kids to school, you’ll catch them breaking the law all the time. They exceed the speed limit, but they’re not getting caught because our law enforcement efforts are not there.

Tavis: So I take your point as a scientist, if that disparity which still existed in the Obama era – when Obama campaigned, he campaigned at bringing that thing down to zero to zero, one to one.

Hart: That’s right.

Tavis: That’s what he campaigned on. Dick Durbin, his fellow senator out of Illinois, pushed this law, got it down to 18 to 1, said, Tavis, it ain’t what I want, it ain’t good enough, this is the best we can do, and his friend Barack Obama as president signs off on it. So now it’s 18 to 1, but it ain’t what he promised. I digress on that point.

But if not – I ask again. If not race, I take your point. The law isn’t racist in and of itself, so what is the justification then for the 18 to 1 disparity?

Hart: It’s hard for me to…

Tavis: As a scientist, what could you possibly posit as a justification for that, if not race?

Hart: Wait a second now. You understand that, as a scientist, I’m saying…

Tavis: I agree with you. I’m just playing devil’s advocate…

Hart: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re asking me to think like an idiot [laugh]. That’s what you’re asking me to do right now, and that’s a difficult thing to do because I think people justify by saying, well, crack has got to be more dangerous than powder cocaine. I mean, that’s silly because powder cocaine you can inject it and you can get a rapid onset of effect. It hits the brain just as quickly as smoking.

Tavis: So why then, by your own admission – and I don’t hold you responsible for this. You’re a rare breed in this field. But why then won’t the scientific community speak up and say more about it? The scientific community is very vocal about global warming; they’re very vocal about climate change. That doesn’t mean that people in Washington get that either, but they’re not silent about that.

Hart: I’ll tell you. I can speculate why I think the scientific community…

Tavis: Okay, please.

Hart: One, the scientific community doesn’t have to go back to my communities, your communities, and face people…

Tavis: Fair enough.

Hart: And people are asking questions about this to them like you’re asking me. They don’t have to face that. That’s one. And, two, science has benefited. Some drug abuse science has benefited from the hysteria surrounding how awful some drugs are because it gives more credence to why our budgets are needed to be increased. So those are two compelling reasons, I think.

Tavis: Okay. I want to get back to your personal story. This book, “High Price,” really is about your own journey of self-discovery. And I’ve been fascinated about something when I saw the cover of the book, number one, and, number two, when you walked in the studio. Some of the best parts of this show happen off camera.

So Brian, my smart aleck stage manager, when the show started, what, 20 minutes ago, Dr. Hart walks onto the set and we were having a microphone problem. His microphone is clipped right around – it was clipped on his jacket over here and his hair was rubbing against the microphone and we were getting some feedback. We took the mic off his jacket and put it on his tie so that it would not rub against his hair.

Now why do I tell you that story? I tell you that story because Brian made the joke, “Well, you don’t need to move the mic. Cut his hair.” [Laugh] Our mic is fine, the brother needs a haircut. You know where I’m going with this.

You talk about the neighborhood you live in; you talk about being a tenured professor, scientist, at Columbia, in the Ivy League. I’m looking at you. I count two earrings in this ear, another earring over here. I see something shining in your mouth. I see your hair hanging this way and going that way.

And if I saw you on the street out of that suit, even in the suit, late at night in New York in your neighborhood or any other, I would not take you to be a neuroscientist at Columbia.

Hart: Right.

Tavis: Tell me about that part of your journey of self-discovery and why and how you get away with all of this.

Hart: Well, first of all, you have to be the best at what you do. If you’re not the best at what you do, you’re not getting away with it. So that’s not to be arrogant. I work really hard at being the best at what I do in order to be who I am. And I am who I am because I have boys. I have three boys in fact and I know other Black boys who want to be stylish, who want to be hip and so forth.

And I want them to be that way and they should be able to wear whatever gear they have or want to wear, particularly when it comes to like my dreadlocks. My dreadlocks is in sort of solidarity. It’s my homage to Rastafarianism, from my education. My initial education began with Rastafarianism, questioning things. So this is like props to them on the one hand, my sort of respect to them.

For all the young brothers who also have dreads, if they understood what dreadlocks were about, why we wear dreadlocks, they would begin to think critically all the things that we value in ivy league institutions. So if people can’t get past the externals, that’s largely in part their problem.

Tavis: That’s a big if, number one. It is their problem, number two, Dr. Hart, but it becomes our burden. As we sit for this conversation, the Trayvon Martin trial is underway.

Hart: Sure.

Tavis: One could argue, has been argued, that in part Trayvon is dead today because of the way he was “attired” on that day. And I’m not suggesting that there’s any condoning of that. You and I feel the same way about that.

Hart: Absolutely.

Tavis: But what say you to those parents watching right now who encourage their kids to not be this individualistic if they want to end up tenured in the Ivy League?

Hart: Well, I think, you’re familiar with the politics of respectability.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Hart: So I think the politics of respectability has done so much harm and what you were just articulating is partly the politics of respectability. This notion that Black people have to be twice as good particularly in appearance than white folks, if we would have the same amount of intensity and energy towards making sure that Black people knew how to think and were smart and were the best at what they do, I assure you that you won’t have to worry about this as much.

Situations like – I don’t know what happened with George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. But when we think about those situations that are potentially dangerous, people might have better skills in order to deal with people like these racist folks who may go after you because of your attire.

I mean, I was just on Fox News recently with John Stossel. The first thing on camera, the first thing he says to me is, “Dr. Hart, why should somebody listen to you? You look like a drug dealer.” So…

Tavis: Did you slap John Stossel?

Hart: Well, again, what I’m encouraging people to do, learn how to think, be smart and so forth. So you don’t have to physically smack him. I certainly smacked him intellectually, you know, and I understood why I was there. If I would have smacked him or became huffy and puffy, the good folks who watch Fox TV would not have heard what I had to say.

Tavis: And I’d be leading the campaign, “Free Dr. Hart” [laugh]. I’m glad you did slap him intellectually. Let me circle back again to “High Price.” There’s so much in here and I’m just scratching the surface on what is a life thus far wonderfully lived and I know there’s more work to come out of you. What’s the takeaway that you hope the reader gets from this text?

Hart: So the book is actually a hybrid. It’s a memoir, it’s a science book and it’s a policy book. So the takeaway message I want people to take away from the memoir is that you don’t have to be perfect to make a contribution in this society. That’s one.

And from the science, one of the things that I want people to take away from this is that they’ve been lied to. They’ve been misled about how awful drugs are. Drugs have been used as a scapegoat not to deal with the real problems that poor people face. Now that’s not to say that drugs aren’t potentially dangerous, because they are. But the public has been misled.

And finally, since many of our assumptions about drugs and how awful drugs are are wrong, that means that we should start to think about changing our public policy. So in the book, I advocate that we decriminalize all drugs and that means that young brothers and sisters and people who are arrested for possession of drugs, they will no longer have a blemish on their record. Because when you have a blemish on your record, it decreases the likelihood of you making a contribution to this society.

Tavis: I got a few seconds to go. Do you think – I know you’ve not done research on this. At least, I suspect you haven’t. Is it your sense that, in your profession, that view of decriminalization is becoming more widely held?

Hart: I think so. But the thing is, I’m certain that most scientists who’ve studied what I study support my view. But the thing is, they are very conservative and they are fearful of the media. They are afraid that the media will twist their words into saying something that they’re not as accurate as they like to be. So you’d be hard-pressed to get scientists to speak to the media and come out.

Tavis: See, that’s why we need a brother with dreads who ain’t afraid to do that.

Hart: Well, my community, man.

Tavis: No, we appreciate you, we need you. The book is called “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.” I suspect this conversation has done some of that tonight, challenged you to reexamine your own assumptions about drugs and about the way they are dealt with and used or abused and legislated in our society.

Dr. Carl Hart is a tenured neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York City. Dr. Hart, good to have you on this program.

Hart: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Congratulations, brother.

Hart: Appreciate it.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: July 15, 2013 at 11:51 am