Carl Hart

Carl Hart

On October 10, 2014 Carl Hart, neuropsychopharamacologist at Columbia University, delivered the annual Chancellor's Fellows Lecture on "Demystifying the Science of Drug Addiction: Neuroscience, Self-discovery, Race and U.S. Drug Policy."

Dr. Carl Hart is a neuropsychopharamacologist at Columbia University, where he conducts research and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in neuroscience, psychology, and pharmacology. He is a world-class scientist who has been awarded multiple multimillion dollar grants to study the complex interactions between recreational drugs and the neurobiological and environmental factors that mediate human behavior and physiology. He has co-authored a leading college-level textbook in the area of drug use and drug abuse entitled Drug, Society, and Human Behavior. Hart has published several editorials in publications around the world, including The New York Times and O’ Global (Brazil).

Since Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971, the U.S. government, law enforcement, media and scientific communities have emphasized the damaging effects and dangers of illicit drugs. The message was clear: all drugs are bad. Some of the more famous slogans, such as “Just Say No,” and “This Is Your Brain on Drugs,” accompanied by an image of frying eggs, solidly reinforced the message. More than four decades later, Hart implores a closer look at his research data, which debunks some of the most entrusted scientific evidence of drug addiction.

In his presentation, Hart described his extraordinary journey from an impoverished childhood, to drug user and dealer, to distinguished professor and researcher, as outlined in his 2013 book, “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.” The book combines scientific evidence with his life experiences, and won the 2014 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.

After the talk, at 2 PM, Hart joined a broader discussion featuring Washington University faculty and students in Umrath Lounge, moderated by Kenneth E. Freedland, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

When Hart began his research in the 1990s, he set out to find a solution to block the powerful chemical reward system that caused drug addiction. As a child, Hart had experienced addiction’s devastation and despair, and conquered many obstacles to be in a position to stop such widespread destruction. But after studying drug addicts in the laboratory, his results strongly indicated that drugs weren’t as powerful as they were believed to be, at least not when another attractive, more rational option is presented as an alternative. These findings led him to question the veracity of his initial hypothesis — that it was illicit drugs that caused the downward spiral of individuals such as his cousin, a crackhead who lived in a backyard shed. This, in turn, led to one of his more controversial theories: that using illicit drugs is a symptom of the socioeconomic conditions in which people are forced to live.

“The key factor is the environment,” Hart said. “If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure.” In his hometown of New York, Hart works to improve conditions for socioeconomically deprived communities. While in St. Louis, he met with community activists in the St. Louis area, including a group of students and faculty at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley to discuss ongoing community service in Ferguson, Mo.

Hart completed his graduate training in experimental psychology and neuroscience in 1996 at the University of Wyoming, then completed postdoctoral research training at the University of California at San Francisco, Yale University and Columbia.

Hart lives in New York with his wife and their two sons.