Should pleasure from illicit drugs be included in consideration of drug policy? 

Apr 4, 2021

In recent decades, the notion that law enforcement approaches to illicit drugs has failed, moved from heresy to orthodoxy. But drug policy till now has only been considered as the prevention of harm. It’s time for policymakers and the community to accept that the pursuit of pleasure should also be a consideration. A distinguished US Professor of Psychology has written a new book discussing his pleasure from using currently illicit drugs.

Carl Hart’s impressive credentials in writing his new book, ‘Drug Use for Grown Ups. Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear’, cannot be ignored. Hart grew up in a dysfunctional black ghetto in Miami, Florida. This was a community where illicit drug use was both ubiquitous and often extremely problematic. He witnessed the murder of childhood friends from drug deals gone wrong. Hart escaped a lifetime of poverty and despair when he received an excellent education after enlisting in the military. This led to Hart becoming the first tenured black science professor at prestigious Columbia University.

Hart has been conducting important research into illicit drugs for 25 years. This often involves recruiting people with extensive experience of street drugs, those whom many would call ‘street addicts’. Under carefully controlled conditions, they are provided with pharmaceutical-grade samples of drugs like heroin, cocaine, cannabis and amphetamine. Hart then measures changes in his subjects’ cognitive functioning and other important parameters.

In recent years Hart has been taking a wide variety of illicit drugs including the same kinds of drugs he has been researching. Hart has now ‘come out of the closet’ to acknowledge and discuss his drug use. He writes in a very accessible vernacular style while drawing great strength from historical and contemporary popular music and often returning to his own painful experiences of racism.

Hart used to accept the conventional wisdom that illicit drug use was a major cause of the severe problems often encountered in poor black communities. He now considers that illicit drug use is much more a symptom than a cause of the poverty, entrenched racism and severe oppression of his people. Hart has also changed his views because his research subjects clearly experienced more benefits from their drug use than adverse effects. When he offers his subjects a choice between taking more drugs or receiving a delayed and modest financial inducement, most subjects chose the money. Years of extensive drug use has not impaired their agency. Hart’s personal experience of illicit drug use has also been predominantly positive.

The US Declaration of Independence holds that the unalienable Rights of Americans include ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. Hart argues that, provided they do not harm others, the US government has no right to interfere with its citizens using currently illicit drugs to pursue their own happiness. He emphasises that he more than meets his responsibilities as a husband, parent, academic or community volunteer.

Hart is an extraordinarily articulate, well informed, fearless and honest contributor to the longstanding debate about drug policy. Drug prohibition in the US began in the 19th century and was from the outset intertwined with racism.

President Nixon’s declaration of a War On Drugs in 1971 led to a politicisation of drug prohibition. The growing emphasis on law enforcement led to increasingly severe punishment disproportionately meted out to the poor and disadvantaged, especially African Americans. While this repressive approach to illicit drugs failed every objective test as a policy, it survived because it worked wonders politically.

However, doubts slowly began to grow. Drug availability soared. The spectacular profits of drug trafficking stimulated the development of new illicit drugs. Over time, deaths, disease, crime, corruption and violence continued to grow. In recent decades the fortress of US and world drug prohibition slowly began unravelling.

There are powerful parallels between the long debate about drug policy and the declining oppression of same-sex relationships. Brave men and women ‘coming out of the closet’ in the early days of gay liberation helped advance later reforms. Lord Alfred Douglas wrote about “the love that dare not speak its name”. Now Hart writes in the same fashion about his still forbidden pleasures.

The irresistible force of demand for an array of banned chemicals is slowly wearing down the immovable mountain of political resistance. Sun Tzu reminded us that “even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust”.

Carl Hart has done us all a great service with his searing honesty. How the irrepressible demand for currently illicit drugs will be supplied safely and in a way that works politically is not yet clear. But the process of drug law reform has begun and is unstoppable. Matching demand and supply of less risky drugs, like cannabis, is much less challenging than finding workable arrangements for far more potent drugs like heroin and cocaine.

The honeyed words of the US Declaration of Independence are less powerful for Australians than US readers. Many Australian readers will also recoil from Hart’s libertarian objection to gun control. Ideally, pleasure should be included in consideration of drug policy although that would make the already formidable political difficulty of achieving reform even harder.

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