Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: "High Price" by Dr. Carl Hart: A Life and the Lies in Drug Abuse Research

For a long time I have been critical about conclusions drawn from animal experiments which purported to be models for addictive behavior with drugs in humans. In particular, I got annoyed hearing over and over about how rats and rhesus monkeys would press levers to get cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine compulsively, even until they died, choosing drugs over even food and water. These experiments were touted  incessantly by so-called experts. As I mentioned in a previous post, the head of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkov, even had the nerve to say that rats and humans could have the same phenotype!

My usual response to this was that rats and monkeys do not know about the damage the drugs might do to them, but that humans do, and that makes the comparison ridiculous if not completely preposterous. Furthermore, if a monkey experienced the “crash” that followed stopping cocaine or meth, it would not know that the crash was due to the drug, only that the drug stopped the crash.  And scientists even STILL have had no luck in finding rats who hide bottles of alcohol.

As it turns out, these points, while probably valid, are only minor considerations in determining the lessons to be learned from these animal studies. A far bigger issue was that the experiments were not even accurately or honestly described by those touting them. In an outstanding new book called High Price by African-American neurospsychologist Carl Hart, a faculty member at Columbia University, the author points out that descriptions of the environments in which the animals were kept were completely missing from the descripions, but that environmental factors were key in determining animal drug use behavior.

Dr. Carl Hart

The animals in these experiments were essentially kept in solitary confinement, as they had throughout most of their lives, and had nothing else to do but push the lever!  If they were instead placed in an enriched environment with alternatie activities available and other animals with which to socialize, their “drug-seeking” behavior changed drastically.

A series of experiments that the drug warriors don't want you to know about were conducted in the 1970s, and known as Rat Park. Researchers allowed two groups of rats to self-administer morphine. They housed the first group in stark cages, one rat to a cage. They placed the second group in an “enriched environment,” which offered opportunities to burrow, play, and copulate. The isolated rats drank 20 times more morphine-laced sugar water than those enjoying the Rat Park. These results have been reproduced using both cocaine and amphetamine.

Dr. Hart points out that if you were held in solitary confinement with just one movie to watch, you might watch it over and over. That would not prove that the movie itself was addictive!  In people, when they have appealing alternatives, they often do not choose to take drugs in a self-destructive manner.

Add to the mix of misinformation about drug abuse is the unheralded but monumental effect of racism on both drug use and the prevailing ideas about it.  Legal bans on certain drugs (and not others) were legislated after widespread reporting of highly exaggerated horror stories about drug use by a despised minority:  crack cocaine by Blacks, marijuana by Blacks and Mexicans, methamphetamines by toothless "poor white trash" in Appalachia, and opium by Chinese railway workers. No one was immune from these cultural influences and myths, including the minorities themselves. The Black Caucus in the United States Congress was, originally, solidly behind the huge and unfair differences in the length of jail sentences for people convicted of using crack vs. powdered cocaine, the effects of which drugs are physiologically identical.

Some facts:  The problems in the black urban community attributed to crack were already prevalent well before crack was even introduced. The vast majority of illegal drug users do not become addicted or even psychologically dependent on the drug. Among addicts, half are employed full time. Violent convicts in jails are less likely to abuse drugs than other prisoners. The vast majority of homicides do not involved drug use, and alcohol is probably the worst offender among those that do. Dealing crack is only about as profitable as working at McDonalds for low level dealers. Few people who abuse drugs take only one drug, yet there are very few studies of the effects of combinations of drugs. Self reports from addicts who are asked about their cravings for the drugs do not predict whether or not an addict in recovery will relapse.

Adderall and Methamphetamine are nearly identical molecules with identical effects, yet drug manufacturers go out of their way to say that those children treated with stimulants for “ADHD” are no more likely to go on to abuse drugs than anyone else.  Of course, since their drugs are already being legally provided to them by physicians, they have no need to obtain them from illegal sources, which is one of the measures the experts use to measure drug abuse!

This kind of circular reasoning in the literature abounds. In a series of experiments with rhesus monkeys, Dr. Hart reports, “…researchers found that the animals’ choice to use cocaine is reduced to the size of the food reward they are offered as an alternative.” People are now using this data to claim that junk food is as addictive as cocaine, when initially cocaine was claimed to be “…especially addictive because animals preferred  it to food when hungry.” (p.93).

The book by Dr. Hart is especially eye opening because it combines discussions of this sort of pseudoscience with the author’s explorations about his own personal story. As an African-American having grown up in an inner city in which many of his friends and relatives did poorly and got into drugs and crime, he asks himself why he not only escaped this but became an Ivy League professor and an expert. The experiences of this black man in America shines a bright light on the real causes of self destructive behavior. It is not drugs.

The following graphic is not discussed in the book, but, with what we know about the havoc that a felony conviction and hanging out with convicts for months or years can create in the lives of young men, it is clear that far more harm is inflicted on drug users by the laws against drug use than by the drugs themselves.

By the way, do you know how to abuse drugs? You hold them in your hand and scream at them, “You worthless pile of sh*t!  You call that a buzz?? You suck!” You then throw them to the ground and stomp on them. 

Yeah, it’s the self that’s being abused by addicts, not the drugs. 

You owe it yourself to read this highly engrossing and informative book.


  1. Great post, thanks for reviewing (I thought it would be more about psychotropic drugs but it was very good nonetheless [it reminds I read somewhere {maybe your blog} that heroin is the least physically damaging drug in the world, it's only stigmatized because it's often injected and it's so *psychologically* addicting *because* there are no negative physical side effects like a hangover]).

  2. No need to substitute Adderall for can obtain the latter by Rx for treatment of either ADHD or obesity:

  3. Yeeeeeah! cos them monkey's love the drugs man even more than the rat's....

    Especially in addiction the whole disease myth, let's people feel less guilty about being douches, nice bonus it was the drug's, porn, booze man not me...

    get that all the time with my ex-alcoholics group, it was not you, you were sick. Sure sure