Episode 19: Drug Talk for Grown-Ups with Dr. Carl Hart

The episode is available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or any of your favorite podcast listening apps.


In the podcast episode, Dr. Hart takes on how society is constantly misled about drug use and addiction. He also explains how misconceptions about drug addiction distract our attention away from real concerns and lead to bad policies, immeasurable suffering, and countless preventable deaths.

On the Mental Health Download podcast, Mark Davis, the Association's chief programs officer, interviews our guest, Dr. Carl Hart.

Dr. Hart grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Miami where drug use was prevalent. The truth is that he even used and sold drugs. However, interesting enough, that life led him to the Air Force and later to the esteemed role of Columbia University professor acclaimed for his research, particularly in regards to substance use, and the case Dr. Hart makes for decriminalizing ALL drugs in America.

That’s why we’re thrilled that Dr. Hart is going to be a keynote speaker at Mental Health Association Oklahoma’s annual Zarrow Mental Health Symposium in October.

His keynote is titled “Drug Talk for Grown-Ups.” In it, he will be drawing upon his own personal journey and more than 25 years of experience as a neuro-psycho-pharmacologist.


Mark Davis: (02:07)
Before we get into your eye-opening research, I want to know just about you a little bit. Why, why did you join the Air Force after high school?

Carl Hart: (02:16)
I suspect you know I'm a black American and coming up in the South in Miami with not much economic opportunities, you know, the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade still are here, it was a way to get a job.

Mark Davis: (02:41)
And so how would you say that shaped you?

Carl Hart: (02:59)
I don't like to say the Air Force was an escape out of the hood, it implies that I'm trying to get away from my people and that wasn't it. It just provided economic opportunity and also provided educational opportunity. It gave me an opportunity to see the world a little bit and see how things were done differently. All of my time was spent overseas, primarily in the UK. It gave me an opportunity to see how black people could be treated differently in a different space. You know, coming up in the South and only being in the South, it's in these subtle ways that you were told what your place is and you kind of know your place. But in the Air Force, it allowed me to see that's not necessarily your place, and you can do some other things if you put the work in and if people provide opportunities for you. Being in the UK really helped me to see things a little differently, even though the UK had their problems and they still do. But it was, for me, better than being in the American South. That allowed me to go to school and gave me the sort of resolve to be able to give something back to my community once I got the skills.

Mark Davis: (04:27)
Do you still think that America can actually address the drug addiction issue that we have going on?

Carl Hart: (05:14)
So, you know, when I got these skills and I got a Phd, I wanted to study neuroscience to figure out what was the brain mechanism responsible for drug addiction. I thought that if I found that mechanism, I would be able to solve problems in my neighborhood because, at the time, I thought that the problems were related to drug addiction, low employment, poor education and crime. But then, later, as I studied more, I learned more. I learned that was wrong. Drug addiction has little to do with these problems. Society is telling us that the problems are related to drug addiction, but that's a lie. The problems are the same things that they always have been. You have to make sure people are educated. You have to make sure people have economic opportunity. You have to make sure people are plugged into a society. I mean, if you add drugs or anything to the mix of that, that will exacerbate the problem or it will cover the problem. But the problems often don't have anything to do with drug addiction. We've just been using drug addiction as a distraction not to go after the real problems which are far more complicated than drug addiction. Drug addiction is a relatively simple thing to solve. We pretend that it's drugs and it's not true.

Mark Davis: (35:29)
When Zarrow Mental Health Symposium attendees go back to their communities, what would be some of the key points from your keynote that you would like people to remember?

Carl Hart: (36:09)
One of the major things that I want people to know is that if the vast majority of people who use any particular drug don't have a problem, then we can't blame that drug. It requires us to look past the drug, and it requires us to look at the person, to give that person a comprehensive assessment and try to understand what's happening with that person, what's happening in that person's environment. No. 2, I hope that these folks understand that people who use psychoactive substances to alter their consciousness are doing so seeking joy, seeking relief from anxiety, from whatever. It's done with these good intentions in order to be happy. And that should be a goal that we all seek happiness. And so these people, folks who use drugs, are not somehow morally corrupt, somehow morally and figuratively inferior. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with them seeking joy. I hope that they understand that we have used this drug issue to further marginalize those people on the margins, and we are participating and subjugating those people and it's not right. Our roles in subjugating these people are not that different from the role of the slave owner who had subjugated the enslaved people. I hope that these folks can look at themselves and look at their own drug use, whether it's alcohol, whether they've smoked weed in the past, whatever. I hope they can look at their own drug use, see themselves and the people who we have vilified.