Text: Clément Bürge
Photo: Peter Ash Lee / Art + Commerce

Carl Hart: “Swiss policy on drugs is inspiring”

American scientist Carl Hart has gained recognition by challenging common beliefs about drug addiction. From his temporary home in Geneva, he is currently preparing his second book.


Carl Hart is a leading researcher on the impact of drugs on human behaviour. Born in 1966 in an impoverished area of Miami, he joined the United States Air Force at age 18. Four years later, he started doing scientific research at the University of Maryland. In 2013, he published the book High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.

“Let’s quit abusing drug users”, TED Talk, 2014.

Carl Hart, 49 years old, is not a typical researcher. He grew up in a poor area of Miami, where he used and dealt drugs. “I’m the opposite of the cliché white researcher from a wealthy family,” he says, laughing. Carl is the first tenured African-American professor of sciences at Columbia University, where he leads research projects on how drug abuse impacts human behaviour.

His story, told in his book High Price*, has sparked the ire of conservative politicians, who think his theory is unfounded and overly provocative. Members of the scientific community have reacted by expressing their support for his work and pointing out that his opinions are based on relevant research and solid data. “Carl’s overall argument is persuasive,” Craig R. Rush, a University of Kentucky psychologist specialised in behaviour related to drug use, said in an article in The New York Times. “I have a great deal of sympathy with Carl’s views,” says David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. “Addiction always has a social element, and this is magnified in societies with little in the way of work or other ways to find fulfilment.”

Carl Hart is now temporarily living in Geneva. He is working on his next book, which will partly be inspired by Switzerland’s drug policy.

IV Discussing your problems as a youth in your book could have hurt your career. Why did you talk about it? CARL HART I wanted people to know that I’m not the cliché rich, white scientist. But, more importantly – and that’s one of the purposes of my book – I wanted to inspire African American youths and give them hope. Even if we make mistakes, we’re not doomed to make nothing of our lives. We can always succeed and get a good job. Everyone should be allowed to get into trouble and make up for it later. That’s what my life shows.

“Human beings will always use drugs, no matter what laws or bans are in place.”

IV Tell us about the famous Rat Park experiment conducted in the 1970s, which you describe in your book. CH During that experiment, some rats lived in a rich and exciting social environment, while others had to live isolated in cages with nothing to do. And both groups of rats could choose to self-administer morphine. What happened? The rats that lived in the attractive environment took much less morphine than their poor caged counterparts.

IV You reconstituted this experiment with humans. Can you describe what you did and how?CHWe brought in addicted users and gave them crack in the morning. Then, during the day, we offered them either to take more crack or make five dollars. And we would adjust the doses of crack we were offering. Sometimes it was more, sometimes less.

IV What did you find? CH We saw that the decision to take drugs was totally rational and wasn’t only driven by the addiction. When offered a small dose of crack, the individual would choose money instead. When the dose
was large, they took the crack. When drug addicts are
provided with attractive alternatives, they make
rational decisions.

IV Your research goes against what we’ve always heard about drugs. Where does that difference come from? CH The main problem involves perception, which has contaminated the entire scientific community. When we, as researchers, start a research project, we tend to perceive drugs as something negative, almost evil. Only the harmful impacts of drugs have been studied and described. But as scientists, we should have a more in-depth understanding of a subject and approach it from
several angles.

“When a drug user has no other source of pleasure in his or her life, he or she continues shooting up because he or she can’t do anything else. However, if a person has attractive alternatives, like working and making money, earning respect from their peers in one way or another, that person will stay clean.”

IV What would the positive aspects of drugs be?CH There are many positive effects. For some people, drugs make it easier to interact socially or can improve sexual performance and cognitive abilities. Human beings will always use drugs, no matter what laws or bans are in place. We should be analysing the various
aspects of the impact of drugs on the human body.

IV Which ideas do you think are false about addiction?CH There are so many ideas that have been fed to us. Most people think crack is so addictive that you can become dependent after only taking it once. The same with heroin. Just one injection, and boom, you have a drug problem.

IV Which is false? CH Eighty to ninety percent of people who use illegal drugs are not addicts. Most are responsible members of our society. They have a job, pay their taxes, take care of their family.

IV You also refute the idea that people who take drugs are more likely to become criminals. CH People confuse drug use and crime. But it’s been shown that the pharmacological effects of drugs do not push people to become criminals. We can compare the impact of hard drugs with that of alcohol. We all know that a drunk person can be aggressive, but most aren’t. We’ve given thousands of doses of crack to laboratory subjects, and it’s never once caused any violent behaviour. So the fact that a person can become aggressive or commit a crime has nothing to do with the drug itself.

IV We often hear that drugs make people lazy. What do you think? CH The myth says that drugs have an impact on an individual’s cognitive performance, that drugs keep people from becoming productive members of society and destroy families. But using drugs alone cannot be the source of these evils. These problems are caused more by an individual’s personal situation. Are they poor? Do they live in a dangerous neighbourhood? Do they go to school? Do they work? A whole set of factors needs to be taken into account.

IV You say that it’s the environment and not the drugs that affect a person’s path. CH The equation is simple. Drugs trigger a euphoric effect, which is a positive reinforcement. When a drug user has no other source of pleasure in their life, why not take drugs? They’ll continue shooting up because they can’t do anything else. However, if a person has attractive alternatives, like working and making money, earning respect from their peers in one way or another, that person will stay clean.

IV You inject drugs into your participants in your experiments, which is unusual. Why not just work with rats? CH It was my mentor Marian Fischman who began doing this type of experiment at Columbia University in the 1980s. She wanted to know how humans react when given drugs, which had never been done before in a laboratory setting. The huge advantage of working with humans is that you can ask them questions. So you can understand the complexity of their decisions and reactions.

IV But is that method ethical? CH Of course, it’s a sensitive issue. We make sure we don’t give drugs to people who’ve never taken any. At the same time, not doing research on humans wouldn’t be ethical either. All our treatments and our laws would only be based on empirical evidence and observations made on rats.

IV But drugs do cause harm. If it’s not due to the nature of the substance itself, how do you explain it? CHPublic policies on drugs have done a lot of damage. The criminalisation of drugs is a huge mistake. There are so many examples of how toxic these policies are. For example, today, when we arrest someone who uses drugs, a trace will remain on their criminal record for years. That keeps them from getting a job and back on the right track.

IV What can we do to improve the situation? CH We should decriminalise drugs and stop arresting and imprisoning drug users. Instead of tracking down users, the police should make sure that the drugs sold are not toxic or laced with dangerous chemicals. We should also better educate young people, as we do with alcohol.

IV What do you think of Switzerland’s policy on drugs? CH Switzerland is admirable at several levels. I’m mostly impressed with the tone of the debate. Drug-related issues are discussed pragmatically, and the support programmes for heroin addicts are amazing. Giving drugs to addicts as a form of treatment is an intelligent approach that works. In the United States, we’d never even mention that idea. Any issue related to drugs passes through an ideological prism that demonises drugs. And that prevents us from thinking clearly.

IV You’re now in Geneva, where you’re working on your next book. Why did you choose Switzerland to start this new project? CH Switzerland has an interesting approach to drugs. That helps me remove the blinkers that I’m forced to wear in the United States. My new book will try to tackle the drug issue differently. Being in Geneva helps free my spirit. ⁄




“High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society”, Harper, 2013.

“Is Cognitive Functioning Impaired in Methamphetamine Users? A Critical Review”, 2011, Nature.

“Acute Physiological and Behavioral Effects of Intranasal Methamphetamine in Humans”, 2007, Nature.