Carl Hart Changes Thinking About Addiction

Carl Hart

Carl Hart Changes Thinking About Addiction

The more researchers tackle the disease of addiction, the more complex it turns out to be. The important thing we have discovered in recent years is that it is a disease of the brain. Drugs and alcohol change the brain in chemical and physical ways, making it extremely difficult to stop using these substances. But we haven’t completely figured this disease out, and a researcher and professor at Columbia University, Carl Hart, is changing the story in a significant way.

Are Drugs the Problem?

Dr. Hart is a professor of psychology and a neuroscience researcher at Columbia. He grew up in a tough neighborhood where he saw the damage of drug abuse firsthand. He saw friends and relatives use crack and other drugs and end up addicted. They lived in poverty and in terrible conditions. They spent all their money, and stole much of it, to get their next fix. They ended up in jail or dead. Dr. Hart, like many people, saw drugs as the problem. His friends, family and neighbors were enslaved by crack. They couldn’t control their actions.

Now as a researcher studying drugs and addiction for over 20 years, Dr. Hart has changed his thinking about substance abuse. He no longer believes that drugs are the problem. He says that 80 percent to 90 percent of people who use drugs are not addicted and that when given alternatives, these users would easily give up drugs. His ideas are controversial but based on his own research.

Drug Users Make Rational Choices

The important thing to note about Dr. Hart’s controversial stance is that he does not dispute addiction as a disease. He does, however, say that most drug users are not addicted and are capable of making the choice to stop using. This is based on his research using participants who use either crack or meth. To conduct his research, Dr. Hart recruited these drug users by offering them the chance to make several hundred dollars in the study.

The study volunteers lived in a hospital for several weeks. At the beginning of each day, they would be offered a dose of a drug. The amount varied daily. After the first hit, each participant was then offered a choice: more doses of the drug throughout the day, or a cash reward that they would not get until the end of the study.

Both the dose of drug and the amount of the cash reward varied each day. Dr. Hart found that the drug users consistently made rational choices. When the dose of the drug was relatively big and the cash offer low, they chose the drug. When the dose was smaller, they would take the cash, even if it was just a few dollars. The rational choices of the drug users surprised Dr. Hart. It didn’t fit the idea that all drug users are slaves to their substance and their addiction.

Dr. Hart hypothesizes that environment is the problem, not drugs. When people live in environments that give them positive alternatives to drug use, such as a strong family structure, good schools, extracurricular activities and other opportunities, most will choose not to use drugs. When the environment lacks these alternatives, drug use seems like a good way to pass the time and to escape bad surroundings. More work needs to be done, but Dr. Hart’s ideas are both surprising and compelling. They should get everyone who cares about drugs and addiction thinking.

Image Credit: By Eileen Barroso (Carl Hart) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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