Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Good News in the War on Drugs

In a new book, "High Price," Dr. Carl Hart shares his findings from his research at Columbia University on crack cocaine and methamphetamine.  This research seems to contradict the conventional wisdom about drug addiction.

In a study of addicts, Dr. Hart recruited subjects by offering them a chance to make $950 while smoking crack.  At the start of each day, a nurse would place a certain amount of crack in a pipe - the dose varied daily - and light it.  While smoking, the subject was blindfolded so he couldn't see the size of that day's dose.

Then, after that sample of crack to start the day, each participant would be offered more opportunities during the day to smoke the same dose of crack.  At the same time, they were offered an alternative of a cash payment which they would collect when they eventually left the study in place of that chance to smoke another dose.  When the dose of crack was pretty high, the subjects generally chose the cocaine, but when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the cash.

"They didn't fit the image of the drug addict who can't stop once he gets a taste," Dr. Hart said.  "When they were given an alternative to crack, they made rational economic decisions."  He also found that when he raised the alternative reward to $20, every single addict chose the cash.  They knew they wouldn't receive it until the experiment ended weeks later, but they were still willing to pass up an immediate high.

"If you're living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there's a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure, "Dr. Hart said.  "The key factor is the environment, whether you're talking about humans or rats," according to Hart.    "The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they've been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options.  But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever."

So why is there all this focus on specific drugs?  One reason is convenience: it' much simpler for politicians and journalists to focus on the evils of a drug than to grapple with the underlying social problems.  But Dr. Hart also puts some of the blame on scientists.

"Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphemine don't get addicted' but in the scientific literature nearly 100 percent of the reports are negative.  There's a skewed focus on pathology.  We scientists know that we get more money if we keep telling Congress that we're solving this terrible problem." 

My question is this:  what would the results of this study have been if the recruits had been Wall Street hotshots?  There are a lot of cocaine users who are not black men from low-income neighborhoods.

Comments on this topic are welcomed!

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