Controversial Professor Says Heroin Epidemic Is Overblown

By Shawn Dwyer 03/17/14

Columbia University professor Carl Hart has said that we should only count the number of addicts, not how many have actually used the drug.

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In a surprising assertion, controversial psychology professor Carl Hart of Columbia University declared that the heroin epidemic as portrayed by mainstream consensus is overblown.

"Most heroin users go to work, pay their taxes," Hart told the Huffington Post. "They don't need help." Hart’s statement came on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder’s public comments that heroin use is an “urgent and growing public health crisis” that requires new enforcement strategies and treatment initiatives.

"Addiction to heroin and other opiates - including certain prescription painkillers – is impacting the lives of Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life - and all too often, with deadly results," Holder said last week. "Confronting this crisis will require a combination of enforcement and treatment. The Justice Department is committed to both."

But Hart believes that the number of heroin addicts as compared to people who have said they used the drug is relatively small. While admitting that the number of users has risen sharply, according to the numbers from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Hart has said that the statistics fail to indicate whether or not people have a problem. In fact, he believes that only 20 to 25 percent of all heroin users are addicted and has called labeling heroin use a crisis as extreme.

So what about the rash of overdose deaths that have plagued places like Pittsburgh and Rhode Island in recent month? "They're dying because they are combining the drug with another sedative," Hart said.

Of course, such a controversial opinion will be hard pressed to go without criticism. Jonathan Caulkins, professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says that Hart’s focus on the number of addicts is “sort of irrelevant.”

“The smarter way to think about the problem is not in terms of number of people, but in terms of amount of consumption," Caulkins said. "And people who meet criteria for abuse or dependence absolutely dominate the consumption, demand and spending on heroin, as well as on the crime related to that activity."

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.