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Book review of High Price by Carl Hart


I recently finished reading an eye-opening book called High Price by Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. The subtitle provides a nice abstract: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. Prof. Hart tells the story of his non-traditional journey from the "special needs" classroom of his youth (where he was tracked along with the other black kids at his school) through his eventual graduate and post-graduate career in academe. He also mixes in the results of his research on the effects of drugs on the human brain that cast a boatload of doubt on our government's ongoing war against its citizens, also known as the "war on drugs."

Here's a fairly typical yet mind-blowing excerpt about the 1986 law that resulted in a huge disparity in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine possession:
Under the 1986 provision, a person convicted of selling 5 grams of crack cocaine was required to serve a minimum sentence of five years in prison. To receive the same sentence for trafficking in in powder cocaine, an individual needed to possess 500 grams of cocaine---1000 times the crack cocaine amount...From a scientific or pharmacological perspective, the disparity wasn't justified: it didn't accurately reflect any real difference in harm related to the drug.
This is because the only differences between crack and powder cocaine crack is cooked with baking soda, which allows it to be smoked. The two forms of cocaine are otherwise nearly identical chemically. Sadly,
One of the keys to crack's success on the market was the selling of very small doses at a low price, something that obviously increases the number of transactions...Crack cocaine increased the prevalence of both street markets and frequent transactions in many black communities. Law enforcement agencies placed considerable resources in black communities aimed at arresting both dealers and users. This combination of factors meant that creating disparate sentences for crack would inevitably---even without any racist intent----put more black people in prison for much longer terms. 
But isn't crack super-addictive? No more addictive than powder cocaine. And according to Prof. Hart's research, cocaine in any form is not very addictive at all, and certainly not as it is portrayed in government propaganda and the popular media. Indeed, 80-90% of people who try "hard drugs" do so without negative impact on their lives. After all, even one of our former presidents dabbled in cocaine without becoming a "fiend."

I highly recommend this book. But be forewarned: once you know something, it's impossible to un-know it. And once you know what's going on with the "war on drugs," it's difficult not to be deeply angered and saddened.

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