Drug Addicts Make Rational Choices, Columbia Professor Carl Hart Says

Drug Addicts Make Rational Choices, Scientist Argues

The image of a crack-starved addict who will do anything for another taste of his drug isn't backed up by the scientific evidence, according to a psychology professor at Columbia.

In an interview with the New York Times published this week, Carl Hart said his research, as well as the work of others, shows drug addicts respond rationally and will regularly turn down crack or methamphetamine -- even if it's their drug of choice -- if presented with other options.

From the Times:

At the start of each day, as researchers watched behind a one-way mirror, a nurse would place a certain amount of crack in a pipe — the dose varied daily — and light it. While smoking, the participant 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. But each time the offer was made, the participants could also opt for a different reward that they could collect when they eventually left the hospital. Sometimes the reward was $5 in cash, and sometimes it was a $5 voucher for merchandise at a store.

“They didn’t fit the caricature 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.”

Addicts more often than not chose the $5 reward rather than small doses of crack, although, when the dose was larger, they tended to choose crack over cash. But when the reward was $20, addicts chose the money every time. Similar results were found in Hart's study of methamphetamine addicts.

These findings are mentioned in Hart's book High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.

In a previous interview with The Huffington Post, Hart said there are multiple interest groups with incentives to keep the media and law enforcement-perpetuated image of the out-of-control addict alive.

Police departments across the country, for example, count on the public's fear of drugs for funding, according to Hart.

"They perpetuate these myths because it increases their budgets," Hart told HuffPost. "We spend $26 billion a year on the drug war. Law enforcement and prisons get a large amount of money to continue to perpetuate this stuff."

Even people like Hart and his co-workers benefit from perpetuating the myth, the neuroscientist said.

"Researchers, treatment providers -- we all have a stake in the drug hysteria game," Hart said.

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