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Neuroscientist Took Unlikely Path to Top

Dr. Carl Hart was supposed to be an athlete. Basketball was going to be his ticket and the NBA his reward.

In high school, the football team and hoops were his saving grace. Sports kept him in school. He did just enough to keep the 2.0 grade point average he needed to stay on the basketball team. Off the court, Hart pored over “kiddy biographies” about athletes. They told him “that drugs were bad, that smoking anything could hurt performance.” He also took to heart what those books had to say about success and survival: “They showed me that the way to win was to outwork your competitors and use everything you had to maximize your skills,” writes Hart in his new memoir.

Dr. Carl HartDr. Carl Hart

In a recent interview at his office at Columbia University, Hart, the neuroscientist, is recounting his climb from one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods to the academy and to the top of his field. “When it comes to drugs, and I don’t mean this in an arrogant way,” Hart prefaces, “I’m the best.” As he tells it, there are few people who know as much as he does about the brain, how it works and how it looks when illicit drugs are introduced. “This work,” he says, “is all that I have done.”

It’s been 22 years since Hart began to probe the pharmacology behind drugs as a neuropsychopharmacologist. Fourteen of those years have been at Columbia, where Hart is an associate professor of psychology, a research fellow at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, and a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. In his early days as a researcher, Hart was motivated to study the brain — first in mice, then in humans — thinking it was the surest way to help his family and friends overcome the scourge of addiction and violence that caused their decline. At one point, Hart, 46, even thought that he was going to “cure” substance abuse.

“But over the years, of course, I learned that drug addiction wasn’t the problem,” says Hart. Of those who regularly use alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal substances, 85 percent or more “do not have a problem,” concludes Hart of the group he’s most concerned about. Then there is a smaller population — 10 to 15 percent of people who use illicit drugs and are addicted to them. Despite their numbers, Hart says, it’s this small group that most clouds the nation’s perceptions about the impact of drugs and their users. This is a troubling matter for a scientist in constant search of the evidence to explain “what drugs do and don’t do.”

One of the most important lessons Hart says he’s learned from research is that “drug effects are predictable.” As the drug dose increases, so does the “potential for toxic effects.” There are safeguards for drug use. But Hart contends that today’s war on drugs is destroying Black communities through disproportionate sentencing while most social ills — unemployment, racial segregation, underfunded schools and dropout rates, which were crippling communities long before the crack epidemic — are being ignored.

Where Hart comes from, poverty plagued many of his relatives and friends. In a family of eight, welfare was a lifeline for Hart and his siblings, who were raised largely by their grandmothers when his parents divorced and his household splintered. In the 1970s and 1980s, when crack cocaine found its way into Black homes and neighborhoods like his, Hart says its greatest toll was “exacerbating” problems that were already there, like poverty.

Hart’s findings, which some have labeled controversial, are not new, but when his research merges the drug science with discussions about racial, economic and social disparities, he departs from the pack. Taking that science and consciousness to a different place, Hart admits, can get “real complicated” for many people, including African-Americans.

Over the years, Blacks, says Hart, “have been complicit” and part of a national chorus “that’s blamed drugs for everything from premature death to child abandonment and neglect, to grandmothers being forced to raise a second generation of children.”

Hart’s mantra: “Just look at the science.” Data from Hart’s studies, and from other scientists, for example, show that crack and powder cocaine produce identical neurological effects. In fact, says Hart, they are the same drug. Still, “crack/powder laws,” he explains, “disproportionately target Blacks” even when “the majority of users of the drug are White.”

Using the drug evidence he’s gathered over two decades, Hart’s determined to do more of the same: unplug the “hype” and deflate the “fear” that he says has long characterized national drug strategy, education and treatment. Hart wants people to know that they have been “lied to, bamboozled and hoodwinked.” Hart, too, was once a believer, until he started “thinking critically” and, yes, doing the drug science. His new book, released in June, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, is a hybrid: part memoir that weaves together a provocative and complex portrait with the science of drugs, social policy and a primer for a new public education on drugs.

Working hard

Hart came to Columbia in 1998, following two other postdocs at the University of California, San Francisco and at Yale University. Dr. Norma V.S. Graham, the Centennial professor of psychology at Columbia University, was among those in the psychology department who helped lure Hart from a research position he held at the medical school to teach part time in the psychology department. That’s when, Graham says, “a number of us became convinced that he was really a top-notch researcher and teacher who belonged in our department.”

His scholarship didn’t go unnoticed. By the time Hart came up for tenure, Graham, who was chairing the psychology department, notes that he was doing “extremely rigorous research on a very important problem that tells us about the brain and how it underlies behavior and also about a serious problem in modern society,” she says.

As Columbia University’s first tenured African-American professor in the sciences, Hart’s plan to keep rising as a leading researcher consists of filling his early mornings, “late, late nights” and most Sundays devouring the literature on drugs and “hanging out wherever I can find a situation to learn about drugs and drug taking.”

This means using his “street cred” on the streets of New York City to open doors to rough drug space. His look and being Black, he says, have also been assets. Hart has tiny diamond studs in his ears with a face framed by a mane of graying Black dreadlocks. He often doesn’t wear a smile, but when he does, the gold tooth near the front of his mouth glints.

At the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where Columbia’s Substance Use Research Center is housed, Hart and his students conduct drug and treatment investigations with human subjects under carefully controlled conditions. When experiments are in session, a crack cocaine user can be inside. From outside, Hart can see the thick “ethereal white smoke” filling the glass pipe as his subjects inhale, respond to survey questions and get paid to inform the empirical research Hart needs.

Paying the price

High Price serves as Hart’s platform for re-educating the public about drugs and his call for decriminalization, not the legalization of illegal substances. Success for Hart would be igniting a movement toward drug reform and education that’s led by “the people, not by scientists.”

Still, Hart is anxious about unfolding the pages of his personal life, especially at the intellectual home he’s made at Columbia. Worrisome, Hart says, is the thought of being “judged for past transgressions.” He’s done drugs, and at one point, sold them in high school. Hart, who is married with a 12- and 18-year-old, discovered in 2000 that he’d fathered another son at 16. Today, his oldest is a statistic — he’s a Black high school dropout who uses and has sold drugs. The realization, Hart says, “was overwhelming.”

Looking forward, Hart suggests that losing needed research dollars may also be the high price he pays for attacking current drug policies with findings from rigorous drug research. In his lab, “good scientists let the data dictate where they go, not the money.” And if those funds dry up, the determined scientist and former high school basketball star, says “I’ll keep trying. That’s part of the price that I pay.”

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