Carl Hart: Drug Use For Grown-Ups

“Drugs aren’t banned because of science. Drugs are banned because of racism. We banned all these drugs originally because of their association with despised groups.”

By Kat Lubiano Last Updated: January 12, 2024
Last Updated: January 12, 2024

Psychoactive drugs have a stigma attached to them — people associate them with danger and addiction. 

If you’re someone who dabbles in the world of psychedelic substances as a tool to enhance mood, creativity, and self-discovery, you’re likely already aware that drugs don’t always spell doom and gloom.

Dr. Carl Hart gives a much-needed fresh perspective on drug use by encouraging adults to make informed decisions about legal or illegal substances. He constantly debunks the fantasy that all drug use is inherently wrong or carries irreparable consequences.

Dr. Hart is a neuroscientist and professor at Columbia University who believes that adults can benefit from responsible drug use if they’re fully aware of the risks associated with different substances.

On top of this, he encourages those who use drugs recreationally to “come out of the closet” to change public perception of the types of people using drugs.

Dr. Carl Hart is one of modern society’s most passionate spokespeople regarding drug policy reform and informed drug use in adults through his research, activism, books, and lectures.

Read on to learn more about how this self-professed ‘geek from Miami’ went from living in poverty to becoming an acclaimed scientist who speaks out against inaccurate and racialized characterizations of drugs.

Who Is Carl Hart?

Dr. Carl Hart is a black American neuroscientist, psychologist, and professor at Columbia University who has dedicated his work to understanding the complex interactions between drugs and human behavior.

Not only is Dr. Hart an expert on psychoactive drugs and drug addiction, but he describes himself as an “unapologetic drug user.” He says he uses drugs like heroin recreationally, which he claims makes him a better person.

He’s published over a hundred research papers, significantly advancing our knowledge of drugs’ neurological and psychopharmacological effects and human behavior. His books are celebrated as some of the most informative and engaging resources on drugs, addiction, mental health, and the problem with America’s war on drugs.

In addition to his academic work, Dr. Hart is a public speaker and advocate for drug policy reform. His work was recently featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Rolling Stone magazine, where he challenges traditional beliefs about drug use within society. These insights make Dr. Hart a renowned scholar whose work will continue to shape global perceptions of drug use for years to come.

The Life & Education Of Carl Hart

Carl Hart was born in Miami Gardens, Florida, in 1966 — a suburb considered the most dangerous in the United States due to poverty, violence, and crime. It’s also home to the largest percentage of African Americans in Florida.

He was raised by his single mother, who separated from his abusive father when Hart was six years old.

Hart admitted in an interview with The New York Times that he dabbled in selling and using drugs and occasionally carried a gun, like many of his peers did when they were growing up. Despite the odds, Hart was also an athlete who excelled academically.

He enrolled in the United States Air Force at age 18, which allowed him to receive higher education, something he eagerly embraced and used as a foundation for his successful career.

Hart earned a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of Maryland, a Master of Science from the University of North Carolina, and a Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience from the University of Wyoming.

Carl Hart’s Research & Career

Hart’s academic career didn’t stop with his Ph.D. He conducted postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco, and Yale and landed his dream job in 1999 as an assistant professor and researcher at Columbia University.

This research involved giving drugs — including crack cocaine, marijuana, and meth — to a diverse range of people. The study looked at these drugs’ behavioral and neuropharmacological effects and significantly contributed to the medical understanding of addiction.

Some of his most notable research papers include:

Like most people, Hart once believed that violence, crime, and poverty stemmed from drug use.

He said that a government-run PSA — “Smoking crack is like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger” — left a notable impression on him as a young man. This led him to study drugs through higher education in hopes of stopping people from becoming addicted.

In his twenty years of studying illegal drugs and human behavior, Hart found that drug abuse doesn’t come from drugs but instead stems from a person’s psychological state, social environment, and personal relationships. Hart realized that the conventional wisdom of demonizing drugs and punishing users did not reduce substance abuse.

His research redefined how society can approach the drug epidemic and paved the way for new solutions to be explored.

As a result of his work, society is shifting — we’re starting to focus more on educating and investing in at-risk communities to address the underlying issues rather than relying on punitive measures.

The Right To Pursue Happiness: Life, Liberty, & Drugs

Hart believes deeply in the American Constitution, and his time in the Air Force (1984–1988) further reinforced this conviction. He passionately emphasizes that he will always stand up to ensure freedom for those who cannot fight for themselves.

In a conversation with The Atlantic, Hart highlighted the Declaration of Independence as the original vow Americans made to one another and that everyone should take a few moments to read it.

His view is that the Declaration guarantees everyone has the right to pursue happiness so long as it does not interfere with or impede someone else’s happiness; furthermore, the government exists to protect those rights, not limit them.

However, the current drug policy does the opposite of what’s written in the Constitution.

By focusing solely on drugs, we ignore the complexities of human behavior and unjustly vilify users, which means people who are addicted won’t get the help they need.

The truth is that individuals will always find a way to obtain drugs, even if they are illegal. Yet, many people do so without knowing what they’re taking. He calls this “death by ignorance.” 

Considering the lack of information and support, it is unsurprising that drug-related deaths and addiction rates remain high despite decades of anti-drug campaigns.

Carl Hart’s argument illustrates how this disconnection creates an environment of unequal and severe punishments for drug use, which disproportionally impacts black, Asian, and Hispanic communities and low-income people.

He also highlights the fundamental misperception that white people do not use drugs as much as other communities do — which is untrue; data shows they use just as much [1].

Hart argues that the government could reduce harm and still give Americans the freedom to choose by shifting its focus — providing access to information on drugs’ effects and offering resources for additional help.

The Misconception Of Drug Use vs. Drug Addiction According To Hart

Carl Hart argues that there is often a misconception between drug use and drug addiction. Drug addiction usually has much more profound psychological and environmental factors that go unaddressed.

Addiction should look at appropriate behaviors — not just the substance itself. A key indicator for addiction — no matter what the person is addicted to (gambling, food, drugs, sex, etc.) — is psycho-social disruptions, the failure to meet obligations at work, family, and education.

Carl Hart’s motivation for writing Drug Use For Grown-Ups was to deconstruct the negative stigma surrounding drugs, particularly among responsible users.

He claims that 70-80% of drug users are responsible individuals, inviting the exploration of socially accepted substances and their recreational use on the individual level. Through his experience, he has sought to demonstrate that drug usage does not necessarily indicate irresponsible behavior and addiction.

For example, alcohol serves as a social lubricant, enabling individuals to break the ice and socialize better without compromising their ability to remain in control.

While some people may develop addictions to alcohol or even “harsher” substances, these cases are in the minority and should not be used to characterize everyone who consumes such products.

Ultimately, Carl Hart’s point is clear: as with any activity, it’s possible to manage drug consumption responsibly and minimize harm.

To this end, Hart implores individuals who use drugs recreationally and remain productive in their personal and professional lives to be open about it, challenging existing stereotypes surrounding drugs.

Carl Hart’s Books

Carl Hart has published over a hundred research papers investigating the interactions between commonly abused drugs and the environmental factors that mediate human behavior. He has also written two books for the general public dispelling myths and biases surrounding drugs, race, poverty, and addiction.

In these works, Hart combines his personal experiences with scientific knowledge to shed light on subjective experiences like addiction and bias while providing counterarguments to popular stereotypes.

Despite delving into serious issues, Hart’s work also incorporates humor that facilitates understanding.

High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society (2013)

High Price is Hart’s first book and dives into his self-discovery through drug use as well as critical insights about the psychological impacts of drug policies.

Hart couples personal stories and anecdotes with scientific information and rigorous research to effectively demonstrate the consequences of drug policy on people’s lives and long-held societal disorders around drug use.

Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear (2021)

In his second book, Carl Hart explores the topic of drugs and addiction in adults.

He examines why individuals use drugs, as well as the effects it has on them and society. Hart provides an unbiased, evidence-based view of the risks and rewards associated with drug use, presented clearly and concisely.

He encourages readers to form opinions while highlighting some of the harms caused by stigma, myths, and misconceptions surrounding drug use, abuse, and addiction.

Hart’s writing is approachable and compelling — he challenges readers to think beyond traditional views, encouraging constructive conversations about handling and regulating drugs better.

This book is an essential resource for anyone wishing to understand better the complexities surrounding this issue.

Carl Hart Interviews & Lectures

Carl Hart is a respected speaker on drug policy and lends his voice and expert opinions to numerous public interviews and lectures. His eloquent presentations, supported by groundbreaking research, offer thoughtful analysis of the current state of drug policies worldwide.

Drug Use Is Your Birthright

Carl Hart on the Joe Rogan podcast Ep.698 

Carl L Hart: Why We Need To Change Our Perspective On Drugs – Extended Interview |The Daily Show

TedMed: Let’s Quit AbLet’s Drug Users

The Takeaway: Who Is Dr. Carl Hart?

Dr. Carl Hart is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University who has dedicated much of his life to researching and understanding drugs and drug addiction.

His published works have set him up as a global expert in topics related to pharmacology, cognitive neuroscience, and behavioral economics of addiction. He is also well-known for his non-judgmental outlook on drug use and for pushing back against unjustified public perceptions.

Hart calls for a new approach to drug policies based on evidence and compassion rather than fear and misinformation.

According to Hart, “Drugs aren’t banned because of science. Drugs are banned because of racism. We banned all these drugs originally because of their association with despised groups.” 

He says, “we shouldn’t throw people away because of their drug use. We should look at other behavior. Unemployment is the bigger issue. Crack is blamed for that, but poor policies caused these things. If we look beyond drugs, we might find some real solutions.”

Hart’s powerful advocacy for those struggling with addiction makes him stand out — he calls for policy reform grounded in evidence-based science rather than stigma or morality.


  1. McCabe, S. E., Morales, M., Cranford, J. A., Delva, J., McPherson, M. D., & Boyd, C. J. (2007). Race/ethnicity and gender differences in drug use and abuse among college students. Journal of ethnicity in substance abuse, 6(2), 75-95.