Carl Hart says in his new book, Drug Use for Grown Ups, that he tried heroin for the first time six or seven years ago. At that time he was already a professor at Columbia University in New York City and was over 40 years old. After taking a “short, thin line” with a friend, he felt “a dreamy, slight calm, free from stress.” He added that they both spent the evening talking and laughing a lot until they both went home again.
Hart is a professor of psychology and an expert in neuroscience. He has worked legally with drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin and studied drug users for more than 25 years. In doing so, he attempted to answer questions about the threats to mental and physical health posed by drugs. Most of the time Hart was doing his analysis, he was anxious to prove one point: drugs are bad.
He now wishes that he and everyone else could legally consume drugs. “My heroin use is just as much a leisure activity as my alcohol use,” Hart writes in his book. “Like vacation, sex and art, heroin is one of the means I use to maintain my work-life balance.” His book is a love letter from a researcher on drugs of all kinds and a plea for a different drug policy in the USA.
“The assumption that people are not going to use drugs is silly and adolescent,” Hart said in an interview with NewsABC.net. “That’s what this book is about: growing up.” Other drug experts counter that widespread legalization is not an ideal solution. Still, they agree with Hart’s call for decriminalization.
Heroin is very effective in treating pain. But heroin is quickly addictive. Heroin can cause breathing problems and death. In the United States, nearly a third of all opioid deaths are heroin related. In 2018, 15,000 people died there from a heroin overdose.
Hart says he’s better off thanks to his drug use. Society could benefit from drugs
Heroin belongs to a group of pain reliever drugs called opioids. They are originally obtained from the opium poppy. Opposed to them are methamphetamines, synthetic drugs. Hart’s work has shown that a drug like metamfetamine (also called crystal meth) offers short-term cognitive benefits. These include better visual-spatial perception, sustained attention and faster reactions.
These effects have been known for a long time. World War II pilots took meth so they could stay awake to fly. Today, metamfetamine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a drug for both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obesity. The chemical composition is almost identical to Adderall, an amphetamine – also a common drug used to treat ADHD.
Hart says his family supports his recreational heroin use. He is aware of his responsibility as an academic, husband and father. “The most important thing we as parents stressed is, just try to live like who you think you are – a moral, compassionate, global citizen,” he tells NewsABC.net. “My family would expect me to stand up for the people who are convicted of their drug use.”
However, making metamfetamine or heroin an everyday habit is something completely different. Constant and heavy drug use makes people susceptible to addiction, although this can vary widely. Long-term, intense use of metamfetamine is also toxic to the neurons, Anna Lembke tells NewsABC.net. She is the director of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic in California.
Hart disagrees with experts who say drugs can alter the brain
Drug addiction is often described by researchers as a brain disorder. Nora Volkow is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She explained this disorder model in a 2018 post, writing that “drastic” differences in addicts’ brains help explain the compulsive nature of their drug use.
Hart, however, claims that most studies of drug users have shown that their cognitive skills and functions are in the normal range. With this, Hart contradicts Nora Volkow. “Intelligent, informed people can have different opinions about the disease model of addiction,” says Lembke.
She also says there is evidence that prolonged, heavy drug use can alter the brain in ways other than learning a new language or musical instrument. Piano players can stop hitting the keys whenever they want. You don’t have to go through the painful, debilitating symptoms of withdrawal.
Hart says the heroin withdrawal was unbearable
Carl Hart knows what opioid withdrawal feels like. In the book he documented some experiences that he described as mild heroin withdrawal. He went through such withdrawal more than once after consuming “no more than about ten consecutive days”. Hart describes the usual withdrawal symptoms as the flu: chills, a runny nose, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. They all start about twelve to sixteen hours after the last dose. For hours it was so unbearable that he couldn’t sleep.
“It was a pain I won’t soon forget. It was a whole new pain – unlike anything I’d experienced before. It was so intense that it shone through my entire body, ”writes Hart and tells of one of his worst experiences during withdrawal. Hart anesthetized himself for hours. So he could endure the time until the pain eased. He was relieved when he woke up with milder flu-like symptoms.
Researchers see this painful withdrawal phase as one of the “most powerful factors” that promote opioid dependence and addictive behavior. People who become addicted to drugs can also develop a tolerance for the substances they use. This means that they need more and more of the substance in order to feel the desired effect. “We all have the potential to become addicted,” said Lembke. “It is in our nature to strive for enjoyable activities and avoid painful ones.”
“Accept the fact that people will use drugs”
Hart believes the US should regulate and license recreational drugs. Then people need to be taught how to use drugs safely. First, Hart wants President Joe Biden to decriminalize drug possession. That would be the first step towards more open, legal drug use. “You could start a big campaign. This could be, ‘If you are going to use opioids, be careful not to combine them with other sedatives or alcohol because they greatly increase the chances of breathlessness and death,’ ”Hart said.
In the US, most of the deaths from opioid overdoses are due to street drugs, such as illegally manufactured fentanyl. Many people mix in antihistamines as well. A combination with opioids can be fatal. It is virtually impossible for people without access to a laboratory to test the purity of these drugs.
Hart believes that many of the over 60,000 drug overdose deaths in America each year can be avoided through better education and cleaner care. He envisions a system where people can submit samples of their drugs and learn what they contain. This could reduce some risks. “Our Basic Law guarantees us at least three basic rights: life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “These ideals are profound. They mean that you can live your life the way you want to. And that’s nobody’s business as long as you don’t prevent someone from doing the same. “
Some experts say Hart ignores inconvenient truths. Access to drugs often leads to more overdoses, more emergency rooms and more consumption.
Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and has served as the White House drug policy advisor to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He told NewsABC.net that Hart’s views on drug regulation ignored the role of money in politics. “What’s naive about it is that he’s basically saying we can trust multibillion-dollar corporations to do the right thing,” Humphreys said. “This is the way we went with alcohol, tobacco and opioids. And I would say we can’t do that. “
Just “a few lines by the fireplace at the end of the day”
Hart doesn’t use heroin every day. He also emphasizes that he does not long for it. However, heroin is his drug of choice. What is so wrong, he asks himself in his book, of treating yourself to a few short, thin “lines by the fireplace” at the end of the day? He says he gets frustrated when he sees people glorify psychedelics. As if they were a special class of drugs and not simply the chemicals of choice for white, recreational drug users.
“Heroin allows me to suspend the constant preparation for the fight that is going on in my head,” he wrote. “I often find myself in a state of heightened vigilance, in which I try to prevent or minimize the damage that daily life is causing in my body.” When asked how to keep legalization safe, Hart gave way from: “The regulators should just do their job.”
This article was translated from English and edited by Julia Knopf. You can read the original here.