By Emma Nolan
Photo courtesy of Torben Hansen.
The popular perception of the term “drug user” commonly summons images of what are actually “drug addicts” — the extreme version at the other end of the spectrum of drug usage. In order to understand addiction and what it really means, we need to reevaluate our perceptions of users versus addicts. The vast majority of drug users are simply that, users. Everyday tax-paying, functioning members of society who use drugs recreationally with very little impact on their daily lives.
“Young people can use drugs and can be productive, tax paying members of society. The general view is of aberrate drug user – the extreme, but epidemiological data supports that 80 to 90 percent of drug users are not addicts,” says Dr. Carl Hart, neuroscientist and associate professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is also a Research Scientist in the Division of Substance Abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University, their first tenured African American professor in the sciences, and author of High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.
Dr. Hart seeks to change the way we think about addiction, race and poverty in his book and also looks at ways of changing the common misconceptions surrounding these issues.
Attorney General Eric Holder, last week, proposed changes in the incarceration system for drug offenses to the Justice Department. “Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences,” says Dr. Hart in a Huffington Post editorial.
Holder also stated the racial bias that exists in the prison system in America, explaining that the war on drugs has paved the way for “a kind of decimation of certain communities, particularly communities of color.”
Dr. Carl Hart explores this issue of racial bias in High Price, telling BTR that, shockingly, of all “black boys born after the year 2000, one in three will spend time in prison.”
The statistic gives the public the perception that all black boys are trouble makers but they are not looking at the biased drug laws which enforce this stereotype. The figures are not representative of the data which supports the fact that non-black Americans use drugs in the same quantities as black Americans. “Marijuana is the drug people are most arrested for in America,” Dr. Hart says, “however, Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for it and they don’t use it more than white people.”
The research backs this up as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reveals that people reporting crack cocaine use in 1991 were 52 percent white, 38 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic.
While crack cocaine, “America’s most Vilified Drug” is commonly perceived as the drug of choice for lower class, urban, black communities, this is not the whole truth. When crack cocaine rose to prominence in America in 1985, 1986 it was cheap so it was used by poor black people. Says Hart, “they were not the only ones, but this is the image of crack cocaine that is in the shared American consciousness.”
The concept of the “crack baby” emerged in the ’80s regarding babies whose mothers smoked crack during pregnancy. It was highly sensationalized by the media, yet research done on these so called crack babies has proven that they had no significant health problems related to prenatal crack exposure.
In 1989 Dr. Hallam Hurt, chair of neonatology at Philadelphia’s Albert Einstein Medical Center at the time began a study into the long term effects that the exposure had on infants (one in six) who were exposed in the womb. Though health problems were expected, they never occurred. “The long and short of it is that we’ve not seen a significant damaging effect of cocaine,” Hurt told Gawker. Poverty, she claims, is what is detrimental to these children in their communities.
The racial bias propaganda that shrouds crack cocaine and its users is not congruent to the actual facts. “It did not ravage cities the way the media and politicians have claimed. Most people never become addicted, and those who do are likely vulnerable to the conditions in their environment that make addiction more likely,” says Kristin Gwynne, associate editor and drug policy reporter at AlterNet.
In popular culture, the Chapelle’s Show character Tryone Biggums plays off this poor, black, stereotypical crack addict. In various skits, Chapelle is knowingly parodying the crack addict trope, thus hilariously undermining the perception that this is what all crack users and addicts are like. In playing up to the stereotype, he provides an over the top social commentary on the popular opinion on how crack cocaine users and addicts behave.
Despite crack’s image as a hard drug that devastates communities, its other powdered form is associated with glamour, celebrities and Wall Street executives, who are primarily white. This form of race-based drug propaganda is geared towards the privileged, whilst the same drug in a cheaper form is synonymous with poverty.
Black or white, Dr. Hart urges the public not to equate drug use with drug addiction while hoping to change the perception of drug use and the racial and class stereotypes associated with them. In his view, it is inconsistent, so-called “empirical” information that creates a smoke screen of sensational reactions and radical stereotypes to drugs and pervades rampant racial inequality throughout the justice system.
Dr. Hart also believes decriminalization is a major change needed in America’s drug policy. Though a handful of states have decriminalized marijuana, Dr. Hart believes that America should follow in the footsteps of Portugal, which has decriminalized all drugs and is greatly benefiting as a result.
“Overall, they have increased spending on prevention and treatment, and decreased spending for criminal prosecution and imprisonment,” says Hart. “The number of drug-induced deaths has dropped, as have overall rates of drug use, especially among young people.”