Neuroscientist Carl Hart’s Memoir "High Price" Wins PEN Award

August 28, 2014

On his website, Carl Hart describes himself as a scientist, an activist and an educator, in that order. Now he can add award-winning book author for his widely praised memoir, "High Price."

Hart, an associate professor of psychology in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia, recently won the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for the book, which traces his improbable journey from an impoverished Miami neighborhood to a tenured position as an Ivy League neuroscientist. It also offers a sharply critical look at a U.S. drug policy that he finds to be both deeply flawed and racially biased.

“This award means more than anything in terms of a validation of my work,” said Hart. “It is easy for people to dismiss the book as just a memoir, but the PEN judges got it.” In their citation, the judges noted how Hart’s “unflinching view of his past, along with his rigorous academic inquiry, make for a document of innovative thinking and profound humanity.” It is also, they said, “a compelling argument to reconsider this country’s policies on drug use, which have proved so ineffective.”

Demystifying conventional wisdom on drug addiction is a mission for Hart, and the dread-locked 47-year-old takes every opportunity to do so—in the classroom; with his textbook, Drugs, Society, and Human Behavior; during media interviews; in testimony about marijuana use before Congress in June, not to mention to his 11,000 Twitter followers.

“Carl has been able to use rigorous scientific methods to address beliefs and perhaps misconceptions prevalent among national leaders regarding drug use, drug addiction and cause and effect patterns of behavior,” said Judith Rabkin, a professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry and Hart’s colleague at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, which is affiliated with Columbia University Medical Center. “I have been consistently impressed by his willingness to be an independent thinker even when his findings and conclusions clash with establishment doctrines.”

Hart has spent his academic career studying the effects of drugs such as marijuana, crack cocaine and methamphetamine. In the case of crack, he has argued that smoking it does not lead inevitably to addiction. “There has been no credible neurobiological evidence to that effect.”

His data-driven conclusions upend conventional wisdom. He has found that if given alternatives such as money or merchandise vouchers, many drug users will avoid narcotics. And that there is little cognitive impairment in users of methamphetamines. “These negative effects have been wildly overstated,” he said, explaining that it was his own background growing up among drug users that enabled him to question so many assumptions about drug use. “When it came to reading the scientific literature about drugs, I knew that wasn’t what I had seen and experienced.”

Hart has contributed extensively to the national discourse on drug issues, including co-authoring dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles in the area of neuropsychopharmacology. A recipient of the University’s Presidential Teaching Award, he has taught undergraduate and graduate courses and is a member of the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse.

Hart hardly seemed destined for academic stardom. A high school athlete, he kept his grades just high enough—a C average— to avoid being kicked off the basketball team. He was involved in petty crimes, sold drugs and used them, too. When it was time for college, the basketball scholarship he hoped for didn’t come through so his adviser steered him towards the military. He joined the Air Force and credits the college courses he took in England, where he served, with sparking his imagination. He returned to the U.S. after four years, determined to do what he could to help his drug-ridden community. “I wanted to learn about drugs and the brain,” he said. He received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland and his master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Wyoming.

Hart tells his story in interviews, speaking engagements and in his book “because I want people to know that I’m not special,” he said. “It’s not that I’m smarter. If you look at my journey, I had some structures in place and some mentors that helped me get to where I am.” They include five older sisters and his grandmother, who kept him in line; athletics, which kept him in school; high school counselors and a series of graduate school advisers without whom he might not have pushed on toward his doctorate.

Mostly, though, he wants to use his platform and his scientific credibility to change the conversation about drug use and eliminate disparities in how drug laws are enforced, particularly when it comes to African Americans. “People who look like me are often scapegoated more than others, and as a scientist who knows the facts about drugs, that’s very disturbing.”

—by Sabina Lee