Neuroscientist Carl L. Hart is making waves in his field. And not just for being the first Black person to be tenured in the sciences at Columbia University. Hart has become an enfant terrible in neuroscience and adjacent disciplines for his stance on hard drugs: heroin, morphine, and the like. Specifically, Hart thinks we’ve got them all wrong. He says that for most of their users, these substances offer qualitative life improvements and should be legalized, regulated, and even—this is where he gets really controversial—encouraged. Hart is famously a regular user of heroin himself—a fact that never ceases to raise a ruckus in his talks and lectures.
As Hart details in his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, historical accidents alone—pharmaceutical lobbying, research funding strictures, and of course, deeply-ingrained structural racism—have kept us from understanding heavy-duty narcotics on a spectrum with other legal and regulated mind-altering chemicals: alcohol, nicotine, SSRIs (serotonin inhibitors) Klonopin (for seizures), Ambien (for insomnia), etc. As Hart sees it, only social baggage, faulty research, and unwarranted connotations keep substances like heroin from being introduced in moderation into our lives as effective modifiers of mood, affect, and experience. “The pursuit of happiness [and] liberty” is at stake, he says.
Hart bases his conclusions on extensive research, both on himself and other subjects. Conditioned by his field and American culture broadly, Hart writes that he, too, expected to see a naroticized subject as “essentially a slave to the drug.” Yet, in reality, “that [is a] person I ha[ve] never seen in all of my research.” People on drugs “are responsible. They show up for these demanding [research] schedules.” Part of what distinguishes Hart’s advocacy from past drug boosters like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert is the breadth of his project. Whereas Leary and Alpert confined their redeeming labors to the more optimistic, even utopian-seeming class of psychedelics, Hart brings his depathologizing efforts to even the hard stuff, the bad stuff.
While he’s certainly eccentric to the parochial confines of academic neuroscience, however, Hart’s position is actually deeply consistent with emergent cultural trends. I don’t mean just the banal truism that in its late period, in its decadence, American society is becoming more permissive, liberal, or drugged out. I mean instead that Hart’s thinking converges with the trend to frame the redemption of drugs through a language of management, regulation, and efficiency—even, at its extreme, what the French historian Michel Foucault called the “entrepreneurship of the self.”
Maybe, viewed this way, Hart’s position is emblematic of the way that the new drug libertarianism is actually less a means about pursuing “happiness [and] liberty” than about reconciling drug use with new languages of control. Hart’s thesis, that is, might be understood as unwittingly recruiting narcotic cultures into not only docility generally, but into compliance with contemporary systems of production, specifically.
This discourse becomes apparent in Hart’s focus on the compatibility of drugs and functionality, even productivity. His moment of clarity concerning drugs like heroin came upon realizing that it didn’t interfere with “responsib[ility]” to “demanding schedules.” It’s not just that narcotics, for Hart, are compatible with the structure of a labor market. They may even allow a more nimble, creative, successful, and tolerable life within it.
Needless to say, my aim here is not to say that our lives in these new work-life configurations shouldn’t be as tolerable as possible. But it is to suggest that the chemical prostheses and remedies we’ve embraced to effectuate that comfort might be making us comfortably numb to systems of economic extraction that could be otherwise and are in no way aligned with the broader countercultures from which they still derive aesthetic capital.
It’s this language of minute gradations and improvised adjustments—of the plasticity of human bodies and minds above all else—that most fully places drugs in the service of emergent economies of labor, production, and value. It’s also what differentiates these drug discourses from those of what we could call the “long 1960s”. In that period, the promise of drug use lay in the production of decisive state change—the almost binary and temporarily irreparable conversion from self to (an)other. It’s precisely that inalterability, that temporary permanence that seems so inhospitable—so, frankly, inefficient—in today’s drug culture.
What we now want from our drugs are scalar, modular states—access to dynamic and instantaneous re-routings, slight, almost imperceptive, and above-all reversible and recombinant gradations. Though it’s perhaps evident in emergent, inchoate form in corporate cultures of cocaine in the 1980s, this logic reaches its apotheosis in the microdose—whether of LSD, Adderall, mushrooms, or something else. When LSD is taken today, that is, one is no longer “dropping out”, but only “tuning in” ever more precisely. It’s also present in the new passion for CBD, whose chief attraction seems to be that it is at once drug and not: like THC, but not in a way that would hamper your productivity.
This cultural and discursive shift tracks parallel economic changes in modes of production. Though shifts were already afoot, the ’60s was still rooted in what economists call a Fordist mode of production, one rooted in industrial manufacture and the factory system. This system of manufacture, distribution, and retail began to be supplanted most decisively in the ’70s by a paradigm that extracted value instead from immaterial domains of cognition, service, finance, and management. Many cultural theorists have described this trajectory as the supplantation of a binary logic (value extracted from material things created and sold), to a nonbinary one (value extracted by monetizing nonmaterial fluctuations in value).
Perhaps most canonically, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze referred to this new system as a “control society”. We still live in the late stages of this model. We might speculate that the change in drug discourse doesn’t just map this change in structures of value extraction but is driven by it.
What’s unique about Hart’s book—and his thought generally—then, is not, as widely discussed, its redemption of drugs as productive aspects of society. It’s merely his willingness to extend the paradigm of a redemption well underway to the harder, darker tranquilizers and opiates that have been aesthetically—but, crucially, not conceptually—resistant to that rebranding until now, especially in light of the overdose epidemic still unfolding.
Though it must seem counterintuitive to the point of cruelty in a time of such mass overdose, might we not ask whether something is lost in this recovery of heroin, morphine, and opiates? Does it not mark the cooptation of the one class of substances that held out a mode of self-making—if to be sure, in this case, self-shattering—defiantly resistant to the control economies so regnant today? Might we mourn, alongside the tragic deaths from opioids, the loss of people who are not responsible, people who didn’t “show up for demanding schedules”? What Hart’s research unwittingly marks, then, is an elegy not so much for hillbillies but for drop-outs.