Behind Bars

The Prophet of the Bogus Drug War

Long before the Justice Dept.’s new mandate to ignore harsh mandatory minimum sentences, Dr. Carl Hart has been poking holes in the science of linking drugs to prison time. He talks to Jim Neal.

En route to LaGuardia recently aboard the M60 bus, I struck up a conversation with an elderly black man. Our chat weaved from the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy (a judge has just ruled it a violation of constitutional rights) to the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods. Then, out of the blue, with a confused expression, the man asked me: “What is three ounces?”

His only son had been imprisoned for 13 years for possession of cocaine, a sentence that “robbed my son of his life,” he said. But he struggled to square that conception with such a small amount of weight.’

In a tepid new directive from the DOJ, Attorney General Holder will announce Monday a new policy directing federal prosecutors not to include quantities of drugs possessed in drafting indictments for certain defendants charged with drug crimes. The directive is a tiny step in the right direction, far from the enduring sort of “tough on reform,” force-of-law legislation that only Congress can enact. Several of the qualifying criteria for defendants to be eligible for indictment subject to the new DOJ policy—no “leadership” in gangs, no “significant ties” to large-scale gangs or “significant” criminal history—are cryptic. Do prior convictions for white-collar crimes like embezzlement constitute significant criminal history? What about Lil Wayne’s conviction for attempted gun possession? The unintended consequence of loopholes may be to penalize first-time offenders arbitrarily tagged as part of a cohort that constitutes a large percentage of those arrested for drug offenses. It smacks of yet another instance of the administration unveiling policy with good spin and no spine.

None of this news to Dr. Carl Hart, a dreadlocked, intense young Columbia University researcher on drugs of abuse who tackles failed drug policy in America head-on in his new book High Price.

Hart’s memoir tells the story of his ascension from a black boy in a poor neighborhood to the first tenured African American professor of sciences at one of the world’s most esteemed universities. He cites among his saviors Aid for Families with Dependent Children (welfare as we [knew] it), minimum academic standards required to play basketball at his high school, serving abroad in the Air Force, and having a series of mentors who inspired him to climb the educational ladder thereafter.

Professor Hart’s research has been a major contributor to scientifically deconstructing bogus anecdotes underpinning America’s “war on drugs.”

It’s a timely message. Though national attention has fixated upon the plight of black youth in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, attention has shifted, as it always does. The faceless hoodie-clad profile pictures on Facebook have come down, and media attention has shifted to whether or not Prince George will be circumcised and Anthony Weiner’s wiener. Mired in a debate over gun laws and restrictive voting laws, nary a single public policy initiative has emerged to redress the imprisonment of 30,000 federal inmates behind bars for crack offenses—a staggering 15 percent of the total federal prison population. According to the NAACP African Americans constitute about 80 percent of those sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws, this despite the fact that more than two thirds of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic.

Dr. Hart’s research is part of a large body of empirical evidence that explains why illicit drugs like crack and powder cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana are not the bogeymen for crime in impoverished communities. Far from being addicted, about 75 percent of drug users in the United States live fully functional lives: they go to work, have stable family relationships, and are off the radar of the criminal justice system. It is true that addicts—the 15 to 20 percent minority of drug users—are concentrated in poor communities, which is hardly surprising in light of limited educational and economic opportunities. But rather than shipping someone to prison, the most effective addiction treatment outcomes stem from contingency management programs such as job training and behavioral counseling. The societal benefits of such a shift would be enormous: lower expenditures on criminal justice and prisons, and an increase in the tax base as many recovering addicts enter the labor force. Productivity losses from incarceration for substance abuse cost American taxpayers $58 billion annually, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Hart’s prescription is simple: “Disregard belief systems that aren’t based on empirical studies.” And empirical studies debunk what most Americans believe about drugs. Crystal meth? Long-term users are neither cognitively impaired nor are the vast majority of users addicted to the drug. Heroin? The vast majority of users are not addicted. Ditto for crack and powder cocaine. Despite crack and powder cocaine being identical pharmacologically, a stiff federal sentencing disparity persists: to receive an equivalent sentencing for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine, a user of powder cocaine must possess 90 grams of powder. The 18:1 disparity punishes black people disproportionally and illogically. President Clinton signed legislation in 1995 that ignored his own U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recommendation to equalize sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession, declaring “I am not going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down.” Candidate Barack Obama promised to eliminate the disparity in a 2007 Howard University commencement address where he remarked, “The real difference between the two is the skin color of the people using them.”

No small wonder that Hart has no delusions about political leaders advancing drug education. He is similarly dismissive of criminal justice officials playing any role in setting drug policy. “[They] have no business speaking about public policy and drugs,” he says. “They have no training in pharmacology and behavioral sciences.” He wryly notes that none of America’s six “drug czars” since enactment of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 have backgrounds in health or behavioral science.

Dr. Hart is a proponent of decriminalizing of all drugs, treating minor possession as a misdemeanor, and escalating intermediation in the event of possession above higher thresholds. He cites that state laws mandate the education of drivers and level consequences for driving violations, rather than imprison drivers when they are cited for moving violations. “A national ‘drug education’ policy as opposed to the current ‘anti-drug’ policy—coupled with the decriminalization of all drugs—is easy to validate in the literature,” Hart remarked. “The goal clearly isn’t to encourage people to use but rather to keep them safe.” Research in humans has shown that contingency management offering alternative reinforcers—like opportunities for employment—nearly doubles abstinence from drugs like cocaine and heroin.

Hard work is a theme that Hart goes back to again and again. He realizes that educating Americans to drop what many take for granted is daunting, all the more so when politicians, law enforcement personnel, and members of the medical community fear change. He acknowledges that “politicians move when the public requires them to move” while emphasizing that his campaign is to educate Americans “why it is in their interest” to make that push. In a nation that has elected three consecutive presidents who used illegal drugs, we have ignored the ugly truth that one third of black male children will spend time in prison, mostly for drug-related offenses.

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That is a wrong Professor Hart will keep pushing, until we get it right.