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High Price
by Carl Hart
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 8/15/2013

“Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the used of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed.”—Jimmy Carter, President of the United States, “Drug Abuse Message to the Congress”, August 2, 1977

High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society is a largely autobiographical account of the life of research scientist and drug expert Carl Hart, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, and Director of the Residential Studies and Methamphetamine Research Laboratories at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Hart is a black neuroscientist who grew up in a poor community beset by institutionalized racism and accompanying social problems. His transition out of his neighborhood milieu to the heights of the academic elite was gradual, and had its problems and setbacks. Drug use, however, was not a cause of any them. And here is where this book becomes much more than an autobiography, but a candid assessment from one of the nation’s leading experts on the effects of many of the most popular drugs on human subjects.

The problems Hart describes in his upbringing and environment spring mainly from racism and poverty, often erroneously attributed to drugs. Yes, Hart smoked some cannabis as a teenager and young adult; yes, he had a brief flirtation with occasional powdered cocaine; but neither of these activities had any significance, positive or negative, on his overall life trajectory, other than possibly informing his professional viewpoint on the general impact of recreational drug use on most individuals within contemporary society. When he discusses his upbringing, background, and family, the only drug that seemed to play much of a negative role was alcohol. A much larger role then the effects of any drugs were the effect of the criminal justice system, although fortunately not on him.

Hart’s views won’t surprise Erowid readers. Anybody who has been paying attention realizes that the “problem of drugs” in America is not a problem of the effects of particular chemicals on the brain or on behavior, but a reflection of underlying social issues—such as poverty and racism—and of the adaptations people develop in response. Hart’s claims that the criminal justice system and its treatment of blacks (and others) is much worse than the effects of drugs themselves—even overly stigmatized drugs such as crack—is a no-brainer. This book was clearly written for the lay reader, and maybe for those still under the sway of mainstream anti-drug propaganda. But as a personal narrative it is engrossing and the scientific findings are compelling. While detailing his own research in giving human subjects controlled doses of crack or meth in the laboratory and investigating their cognitive abilities and their motivations for drug use, Hart also discusses related research, such as the Rat Park, a 1970s study that provided evidence showing that environmental conditions were responsible for morphine addiction in lab rats.

If I had a complaint about High Price, it is that Hart’s obvious expertise on drug effects was too sparingly elucidated on, mainly relegated to the last few chapters of the book. But this may be my bias; I spent a long time browsing through Hart’s published scientific papers and want to know more about specific research findings. It may not have been the intended effect, but reading Hart’s autobiography made me wish I had a research monograph on Hart’s scientific research on drugs to date. For those people who don’t quite yet understand the staggering failure of our approach to drug use, hopefully High Price will open some eyes.

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