4 Ways You've Been Totally Misinformed About Drugs

PHOTO: cokeMilos Jokic/Getty Images
A new book looks at drug policy from a scientific perspective.

Whether it's the legendary "this is your brain sunny-side up" commercial or the haggard face of one of Jesse Pinkman's meth-slinging homies, we've all seen what drugs can do to us.

Apparently, TV occasionally doesn't tell the truth, according to Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. As a matter of fact, a lot of the things that we accept as common knowledge about drugs just aren't backed up by science, Hart says.

He picks apart the way we understand illicit substances in his new book High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, which goes on sale June 11.

The researcher has seen the impact of drug policy firsthand, from both the confines of his the lab and out in the community. Family and friends in his old Miami neighborhood have been locked up for drug crimes, even his own son, a difficult story for Hart that was featured in the drug war documentary The House I Live In.

Hart isn't pushing for legalizing drugs -- he believes all drugs have potential benefits and drawbacks. But he does think they should all be decriminalized, and that we should give people the facts about substances, drawing on science instead of anecdotal accounts.

Here are some basic points in High Price that unmoor the conventional thinking about drugs:

1. Most People Who Try Drugs Don't Get Addicted

Remember that time you did coke? If you took a bump and then didn't sell your TV to buy more, you're more the norm than the exception. According to government data cited in the book, the vast majority of people who use drugs -- 85 percent -- don't get addicted to them.

2. The Scariest Part About Drugs Is the Weird Stuff People Cut It With

Drugs generally won't kill you if you're using them properly (think about how we use alcohol). But when you throw in adulterants off the street, things get much more dangerous. Cocaine is sometimes cut with the veterinary deworming drug Levamisole, for example, which can affect the body's production of white blood cells. And heroin becomes a lot more likely to lead to an overdose when mixed with other drugs, like alcohol.

Hart thinks cops should spend more time tracking what drugs are cut with and informing the public, instead of targeting users in low-income neighborhoods.

3. Crack and Coke Are Basically the Same Thing

Salt. Powder cocaine has it and crack doesn't. And that's basically the difference between the two substances, chemically. The lack of salt lets you burn and smoke crack, and smoking drugs gets you higher faster. But chemically, the drugs are very similar.

That makes you wonder why drug laws treated crack (primarily used by poor people) much differently than cocaine (primarily used by wealthier folks). President Obama greatly reduced the sentencing disparity between the two substances, but that didn't impress Hart much. He writes about it in the book:

"To punish crack users more harshly than powder users is analogous to punishing those who are caught smoking marijuana more harshly than those caught eating marijuana-laced brownies."

4. We're Pretty Much Demonizing Meth the Same Way We Did Crack

During his research career, Hart has focused on the baddest drugs of the moment. After studying crack extensively, he moved on to meth.

His research shows that the anecdotal claims about the super-addictive and toxic qualities of methamphetamines are exaggerated.

Just like with crack, he sees a double standard: People like Andre Agassi and President Kennedy are known to have taken amphetamines. They lived pretty regular lives. But meanwhile we see very poor people on methamphetamines -- chemically not that much different from amphetamines-- and blame the drug for their physical and mental deterioration.

In High Price, Hart challenges the way the press has historically handled the vilified drug of the moment. The modern-day campaign against meth reminds him of the way The New York Times wrote about Southern "Negro Cocaine Fiends" in the early 1900s.

He cites a 2010 NPR story, "This Is Your Face on Meth, Kids." He concedes that the meth users we see in the news often look worn-down, and have what's called "meth mouth," rampant tooth decay. But the research doesn't show that the drug itself causes these problems -- it's more likely related to lack of sleep, poor dental hygiene, poor nutrition and media sensationalism.

"There is no empirical evidence to support the claim that methamphetamine causes one to become physically unattractive," he writes.

The NPR story also quotes a sheriff saying that 90 percent of first-time meth users become addicted.

Hart writes that "the best available information clearly shows that the majority of people who try methamphetamine will not become addicted," citing a study that found roughly 5 percent of first-time users of meth, cocaine and other stimulants became addicts.

What Hart sees is a cycle of misinformation, all in the name of getting people to stop using drugs. He thinks that the damage wrought by the war on drugs -- particularly for minority communities -- far outweighs the dangers of the drugs themselves.

Updated, 2:23 p.m.