The act of coming out of the closet has been so important to the movement for gay rights that it is celebrated every year on National Coming Out Day. When people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender share their stories, they change hearts and minds, create new allies and help to dispel prejudices and misconceptions.
Can a similar dynamic help end the war on drugs?
Dr. Carl L. Hart, a professor of psychology at Columbia, and Charles Wininger, a Brooklyn-based psychoanalyst, are getting things rolling with new books. They chronicle their drug histories, describe the pleasures that drugs deliver and argue, persuasively, that the press and popular culture have left most Americans misinformed about the risks and benefits of illegal drugs.
In Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, Hart writes:
Opioids are outstanding pleasure producers; I am now entering my fifth year as a responsible heroin user. I do not have a drug-use problem. Never have. Each day, I meet my parental, personal and professional responsibilities. I pay my taxes, serve as a volunteer in my community on a regular basis, and contribute to the global community as an informed and engaged citizen. I am better for my drug use.
In Listening to Ecstasy: The Transformative Power of MDMA, Wininger writes:
I am a New York state licensed psychoanalyst and licensed mental health counselor and have been in private practice for more than thirty years. As I write this, I’m seventy years of age. Since age fifty, I’ve done MDMA…over sixty-five times….[This book} is the story of how this substance has provided a pleasurable backdrop to a full life as well as to a happy and healthy marriage.
These books are enlightening, each in its own way. Listening To Ecstasy is an entertaining personal story: Wininger has written a love letter to MDMA, a party drug known as ecstasy or molly, and to his second wife, Shelley, who encouraged him to explore its delights. In a chapter called Senior High, Wininger calls the drug their “fountain of youth” and writes: “We’re like two kids, hand in hand, skipping around our chemical playground.”
Hart’s Drug Use for Grown Ups is more serious. Hart is disturbed by the way in which the war on drugs — which he aptly calls “The War on Us” — has justified the expenditure of about $35bn a year on police, courts and prisons, while devastating communities, particularly minority communities. By redefining social or economic problems as “drug problems,” politicians and their allies justify pouring resources into spend law enforcement instead of providing for the real needs of poor people and their neighborhoods. “The war on drugs serves as a jobs program,” he tells me.
It took courage for Hart to speak out. While he enjoys job security as a tenured professor at an Ivy League school. he is a 54-year-old Black man, midway through a career as a neuroscientist, talking about heroin, the scariest of all drugs.
“Heroin…is an effective treatment for heroin addiction.”
He was inspired, in part, by the gay rights movement, he says, “Respectable middle class people need to come out,” Hart has said. “The more people who are vocal about their drug use, we, as a society, will become less likely to vilify people for what they do with their bodies.”
Married and a father of three, Hart was raised by a single mother in a poor neighborhood of Miami. He began his research into drugs as someone who worried about the damage they do, and gradually came around to the belief that the criminalization and demonization of drug has done more harm that the drugs themselves.
In Drug Use for Grown-Ups, Hart reports on his travels to Brazil, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, countries that, to varying degrees, have adopted drug policies designed to protect rather than punish users — decriminalization if not legalization, drug-safety testing so people can avoid contaminated substances and clinics where drug users can safely obtain a daily dose before going about their work.
“Heroin, it turns out, is an effective treatment for heroin addiction,” he notes, wryly.
Hart’s broader claim is that the Declaration of Independence guarantees Americans certain inalienable rights including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and that government is obligated to protect those rights. “No benevolent government,” he says, “should forbid autonomous adults from altering their consciousness” so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.
For his part, Wininger has been pursuing and finding happiness for two decades, ever since meeting Shelley, a registered nurse, at a lecture on relationships. A self-styled ex-hippie, Wininger had experimented with drugs but intended to leave them behind until he came upon this woman “who want(ed) to cut loose and explore life.” He has taken MDMA about 65 times since then, and reports:
MDMA gives me an energized, expansive physical sensation centered in but not limited to my chest. I experience a warm glow of safety that’s both corporal and emotional, a loving impulse and a heightened, almost luxurious feeling of sensuality. I have an urge to relate to and embrace others.
MDMA and psychedelics have enhanced my appreciation of the divine and my connection to everyone and everything.
MDMA is more than a feel-good drug, as Wininger explains. It connects people to one another and to nature. It is “the medicine of the moment,” he says. “It address this epidemic of isolation.”
In therapeutic settings, MDMA’s helps people feel more open, relaxed and trusting. It is being tested, \along with talk therapy, as a treatment for PTSD by the Multidisciplinary Associations for Psychedelic Studies, a.k.a. MAPS, and appears well on its way to winning FDA approval as a prescription medicine. (For more, see The Psychedelic Revolution in Mental Health, my story in Stanford Social Innovation Review.)
To his credit, Wininger also identifies the risks of using MDMA. He wraps up his book with a guide to its responsible recreational use. This is a powerful chemical, he notes, that should not be used by people seeking to escape their problems or just party.
Questions about how drugs should be regulated are beyond the scope of these books. Neither Hart nor Wininger support the legalization of all drugs. But they make clear that the way today’s prohibitionist approach — built on lies about the dangers of drugs and stereotypes about their users — need to go, and the sooner the better.