As the new director of Stephenson Institute for Classical Liberalism at Wabash College, I recently had the honor and privilege of hosting a fascinating and passionate researcher-scientist, Carl Hart. Professor Hart participated in a series of scholarly events dedicated to the subject of his most recent book. He makes essentially the same argument as Learnerville’s parable. But Hart’s field of applied research is neither books nor banning them. Instead, Hart is deeply fascinated and passionate about psychoactive substances – drugs. Hart’s last, Adult Drug Use: Chasing Freedom in the Land of Fear, is a tour de force and a refreshing reminder of the central idea of the liberal tradition. The existence of a risk is not a sufficient argument to suppress individual freedom. Since freedom is a prerequisite for discovery and innovation, progress requires erring on the side of allowing rather than forbidding.
Hart has a long, well-established career as a laboratory psychopharmacologist and faculty member at Columbia University, during which he has published hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He clearly, boldly and emotionally argues that there is something deeply illiberal about the way our society thinks about and criminalizes drugs. The clear and consistent results of a lifetime of academic research and similar evidence across entire fields of related study unequivocally demonstrate that the overwhelming benefits of drugs outweigh their costs, even so-called “hard” drugs. Yes, carl hart is serious!
The methods of Hart’s discipline are simple. It solicits participants, designs control parameters, administers substances, then observes, records, measures and compares the results. Intuitively but controversially, the main reported and observed drug effects are positive. It is not very complicated or mysterious that drugs have real, measurable and predictable effects. More often than not, they make people feel good.
Combine the above with the fact that sensational negative results like tantrums or self-harm are virtually non-existent in lab results. Outside of the lab, consequences like addiction and overdose are confined to a small minority of users typically plagued by baffling circumstances like mental health or socioeconomic despair. Concerns about long-term cognitive impairment are not supported by strong evidence. The average drug user is not a junky or a degenerate, but rather a responsible professional citizen. Such findings persist even for supposedly hard drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and crack.
As a trained economist myself, Hart’s appeal to costs and benefits warmed my heart. As the director of a newly launched center charged with the responsibility of organizing intellectual discussions centered on the theme of human freedom and individual liberty, Hart’s title peaked my interests. As a teacher, I knew his frequent high profile podcast appearances would tickle my students.
It was a Sunday morning, he was due to arrive the next afternoon. I poured myself a coffee, made sure my e-cigarette was filled and charged, and put a record on the turntable. From my comfy chair, I sipped my caffeine and puffed my nicotine and from Thomas Jefferson’s opening quote on the front page, I was hooked. “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what drugs they take, their bodies will soon be as deplorable as the souls of those who live under tyranny.”
I read the book in its entirety that day, unexpectedly stopping to change records when Hart referenced Gil Scott Heron, Al Green, and Billie Holiday in turn. I went from sipping caffeine to an artisanal Manhattan as day turned into evening. Her argument was simple, the writing was compassionate, and the story behind her life’s work and lived experiences was deeply moving. I was impressed with his credentials and perseverance, but most of all I was excited to meet him because I knew we could be friends.
On Monday morning, I nervously picked up Professor Hart from our on-campus hotel. In the book, he describes meeting a man with a handlebar mustache, which conjures up images of the Civil War for him — understandably awkward for his inevitably black, dreadlocked identity. My first words to Hart, “I wear a handlebar mustache too, but I was going more for a Super Mario vibe rather than Colonial Burnside.” He laughed and patted my shoulder affectionately, “Man, you’re a close reader.” I like to think we’ve been friends ever since.
He attended my special subjects course “The Political Economy of Crime and Punishment”, attended a small dinner party with interested students, delivered a lunchtime lecture the next day, and graciously dined with faculty and students at a closing reception. Our university community bombarded him with questions all the time. Like his podcast appearances, the questions took on a common form, one that Hart admitted early on was starting to annoy him. “People can’t recover from heroin,” he lamented. “They hear these horror stories from teachers, doctors, police, and the media, but they’ve never met a scientist in the field, or looked at the data for themselves.”
I told Hart that I was primarily interested in his perspective, because my class was trying to situate drug prohibitions within a larger framework of solving the social challenges of crime and punishment; and we situate crime and punishment more in an even larger conversation about the fundamental challenges of political economy. How can societies empower governments to protect and promote individual rights, while minimizing potential tendencies for governments to jeopardize those same individual freedoms? I asked him if the cost-benefit analysis of his argument could also be consistently applied to other criminal prohibitions: sex work, digital piracy, and censorship come to mind. He seemed to let out a sigh of relief. “You get it man! Everyone wants to ask about drugs, but the book doesn’t even talk about it… It’s about freedom.
We talked about drugs…a lot. I asked Hart about hallucinogens and the popular new trend of microdosing. I shared my general frustrations with our healthcare system. Early in my career, I thought a prescription for Adderall might help increase productivity. Instead of being considered a responsible adult, I was given a psychiatric evaluation and told that I would not be given a script without abstaining from caffeine, nicotine and alcohol for several month. Conversely, when I had a tooth extracted, I was given high doses of Vicodin. The drug caused severe digestive side effects, comparable in pain and discomfort to the original infection and postoperative recovery. Yet no verbal warning from the doctor or pharmacist was provided.
Carl, like me, shamelessly violates oppressive criminal laws. Heroin and amphetamines are his favorite substances. Over a long and difficult journey of life and career, facing instances of racial prejudice, academic politics, and threats of political persecution abroad; the drugs served as effective navigational tools in Hart’s pursuit of happiness. Hart’s inferences for reform are bold, but also clear, honest, and backed by scientific evidence. The personal concerns that one might have about the supposed risks and harms of drug use are not a sufficient reason to limit the freedoms and liberties of drug users. Those who experiment with recreational drugs, more often than not, discover effective pharmacological means to experience joy, relieve pain, inspire drive and motivation, or gain deep spiritual awakenings.
I was curious what key insights his expertise might offer others in navigating our changing drug landscape. It doesn’t seem enough to do your drug research, you also have to be a master manipulator to get the doctors to provide you with what you want, and you also have to be a pseudo legal expert to stay out of trouble. No wonder the prison system is full of the most undereducated and poorest groups in society. “I would tell others to be like you, with Vicodin… if you think something might meet your needs, try it, if not… STOP.” Hart is an implicit classical liberal, inasmuch as he believes that people possess a better working knowledge of their own interests than government could ever hope to possess. Hart is an implicit Hayekian in that he recognizes that buying and consuming are essentially processes of experimentation and learning.
Daniel J. D’Amico is Director of the Stephenson Institute for Classical Liberalism and Affiliate Associate Professor of Economics at Wabash College.