Story Telling & Data Driven Decisions

Expert on Science-Based Drug Policy Calls for Decriminalization of Drugs

September 30, 2014

Let data – not popular opinion or hysteria – determine your position

Dr. Carl Hart, Columbia University Professor

Speaking at the research university Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Carl Hart urged the audience to use data and science to question common perceptions. Hart has come to several conclusions that contradict typical notions of drugs and drug policy.

The Dangers of Crack Are Exaggerated

Contrary to the fear of crack cocaine as uniquely dangerous, crack cocaine is chemiclly the same as powder cocaine. And it’s not any more dangerous. Most regular crack users are functional members of society – maintaining jobs and providing for their families.

Hart’s studies show that crack users are capable of making rational choices. In a two-week study, users were offered $5 or $5 of crack and users chose equally between the options. When offered $5 of crack and $20, participants almost always chose the cash. This demonstrates that users do not lose the ability to make rational choices and may choose to refrain from using if given enticing options. Studies with heroin and methamphetamine had similar results. The notion of the crazed addict, unable to think of anything but drugs is a myth.

The Current Drug Laws Are Racist

Despite posing similar risks to users and to society, possession of crack is punished harsher than cocaine. And despite the fact that the majority of users of both crack and powder cocaine are white, the majority of crack arrests are black. Regardless of the intent of the law, the effect of the drug laws are racist. And the government, despite overwhelming evidence, has failed to reform these laws. Which means the lawmakers are racist in this instance since they knowingly allow racial discrimination to continue.

Drugs Should be Decriminalized, Use Resources for Harm Reduction

Hart isn’t advocating for drug use but he argues that drug use isn’t the biggest danger, it’s the way they are used. For example, most heroin deaths come from mixing the opiate with alcohol. Decriminalization would help set the stage for a rational dialogue where potential users could be educated on harm reduction. In the current climate, health educators can’t advise users against mixing heroin with alcohol because the conversation starts and ends with the demonization of heroin. So, if someone chooses to use, they are ignorant of the options they have in reducing their risk.

Data and Storytelling – Lessons for Designers

Hart champions data driven public policy, but he also sees the limit to data. It is anecdotes and storytelling that drive popular opinion. His book, High Price combines both approaches. And as designers, we must do the same. Use data to test our assumptions and use storytelling to be persuasive.