Hart grew up in an impoverished Miami neighborhood, engaging in petty crime and the use and sale of drugs. His parents were divorced during his childhood, and he was raised by a single mother. Growing up in this environment influenced his world view, and he came to believe drugs were the reason for poverty and crime in most neighborhoods, and only later did he realize that "crime and poverty were mostly independent of drug use". After high school, he served in the United States Air Force, which became his path to higher education.
Hart earned a bachelor of science and a master of science from the University of Maryland. He earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Wyoming. Hart attended UNC Wilmington where he worked with Robert Hakan before attending the University of Wyoming.
Hart is the Chair of the Department of Psychology and the Dirk Ziff Professor of Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University. His research is focused on understanding factors and circumstances that lead to decisions about whether or not to self-administer drugs.
In September 2014, Hart was featured in an article discussing how he is debunking drug addiction. He also presented at the TED MED conference on myths about drug addictions TEDMED event and is featured in the documentary The House I Live In (2012 film).
Carl Hart has given testimony to the United States Congress' Committee On Oversight and Government Reform. He has been featured as a guest speaker at Talks@Google, The Reason Foundation, and The Nobel Conference. Hart has also been interviewed or otherwise featured on CNN, "Stossel" and "The Independents" on Fox Business, "All In with Chris Hayes" on MSNBC, Reason TV, "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News, "Democracy Now!", and The Joe Rogan Experience.
Hart's research focuses on the behavioral and neuropharmalogical effects of psychoactive drugs. He is particularly interested in what social and psychological factors influence self-administration of drugs. He uses his research as a scientific basis for his worldwide presentations on the importance of decriminalizing drugs. He cites the criminalization of crack cocaine (which is typically associated with black communities) and lack of similar criminalization of cocaine (traditionally associated with white communities) as an example of how drug criminalization has been based on social problems rather than scientific fact. His work provides the scientific evidence to debunk the myths about hard drugs, and to work towards more lenient and humane policies.
Although Hart's research acknowledges the structural injustices that exist, it also plays into an oppression analysis perspective of psychology. His research, in some ways, mirrors the work of Martin Seligman. Seligman did research on dogs, which was later used as a human model, and found that dogs placed in a situation where they cannot escape pain learn helplessness and lose the ability to escape when the option is re-opened to them. Hart's research has similar tones, in that he indicates a lack of positive outlets and activities as a reason for drug use in communities. However, his work is different in that it acknowledges the extreme structural injustices that were created to further oppress and imprison black minorities. He uses his research to argue for laws intended to make a society safer based on empirical evidence, rather than an oppressive legal system which forwards white supremacy, will move us closer to justice.
In 2012, Hart co-published research on the use of drugs within prisons in the United States. Black men are disproportionately incarcerated for drug use: while only 13.6% of the population is Black, 37.8% of prisoners are black and 79% of people incarcerated due to crack use are black. However, prison as a solution for drug use is not working. Hart's research finds that drug use continues to occur in prisons, and those with more extensive drug histories tend to use more in prison than those with smaller drug histories. As such, decriminalization of drug use, and alternative policies with an emphasis on effective treatments are called for.
In this review, Hart and Lynch discuss a variety of treatments that have been attempted for both cannabinoid and cocaine addiction. Multiple treatments have been found effective in reducing the symptoms of withdrawal for lab animals with cannabinoid addictions, but cocaine addiction has had notably less success. Hart argues that the varied results across cocaine users needs to serve as a reminder of the heterogeneity of cocaine users ranging from frequency of use and method of administration to habits and purposes for use. This article is one example of his extensive research in drug addictions, and serves as a framework for looking at addiction as a disease rather than a crime.
In 2013, Hart published the book High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. In the first chapters of his book, Hart discusses his upbringing, time in the military, and years in college and grad school. He chronicles his journey to his PhD and his tenured professorship at Columbia, and discusses the sacrifices and challenges he had to make. An extremely difficult aspect of succeeding in academia for a black man was, to some extent, assimilating to white cultural standards. He discusses the challenge of learning white cultural norms and language, and then returning to his family and feeling alienated and unable to connect.
Hart discusses how Fordham and Ogbu's idea of "Acting White" played into his early education. In high school, he understood "Acting White" as students treating their communities with disdain. He argues that experts, to some extent, missed the mark with their claims that acting intellectually is a rejection of blackness. Rather it is removing oneself from their own communities, or as Fordham and Ogbu explained, disregarding the fictive kinship that exists between Black people, that leads to the label of Acting White (52)". However, the maintenance of Eurocentric ideals and language can, as Hart felt, strain those ties with the black community. In High Price, Hart discusses how his family often perceived that he was acting superior to them because of the language patterns and style of life he was living.
He ends the book with an argument for decriminalization of drugs. His research has shown that the dangers associated with drugs are largely misunderstood, and a decrease in stigma and increase in conversation would likely decrease the amount of drug related deaths. Misconceptions about hard drugs are common, and countries such a Portugal and Thailand have decriminalized and begun the process of decriminalizing hard drug use.
Hart recognizes how drugs have been criminalized in the United States to specifically target minorities. One such example is the difference in sentencing between crack and cocaine, which are essentially the same drug. Hart is working to expose racism embedded in drug laws and to decriminalize drug use through policies that are scientifically based rather than heavily influenced by social determinants of the era., Hart has lectured in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America and has testified before the United States Congress and around the world as an expert witness on psychoactive drugs.
He also uses the intersection of his understanding about the systemic racism inherent in drug criminalization, in combination with his extensive knowledge about drugs, to combat mainstream stories which perpetuate myths of black (and other minority) inferiority. One such example was a response to the Toxicology report presented in the case of Trayvon Martin. The extremely low levels of marijuana in Martin's blood were seen as evidence that he might have been paranoid the night of his shooting, causing him to attack Zimmerman. Hart spoke out about this ruling—explaining that it ascribed to old notions of marijuana use, such as those implied in Reefer Madness, and failed to recognize the seven decades of research on marijuana that would 1) show the levels of marijuana present in Martin's blood were insufficient to cause the aforementioned side effects, and 2) disavow the side effects mentioned which are extremely uncommon in marijuana users.
Hart calls for the use of empirical research in determining drug-related incidents across greatly varying scenarios, with the hope that scientifically grounded research will trump the racist policies currently in place, and decrease the unjust incarceration and punishment of black communities for drug use.
In May 2017, Hart was invited to speak at a drug policy forum conference sponsored by Non-governmental organizations, held at the University of the Philippines Diliman. In his speech, he addressed the misconceptions about methamphetamine in the Philippines amidst President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs. Citing laboratory tests on animals, Hart refuted Duterte's claim that methamphetamine shrinks people's brains and causes them to become violent. In the aftermath of his speech, Hart began to receive online death threats which forced him to leave the Philippines shortly thereafter.
Duterte commented on Hart's claims, saying: "That's all bullshit to me". Duterte also called Hart a "son of a bitch who has gone crazy". In an interview with Public Radio International, Hart described Duterte as "a president making such ignorant comments about drugs — like he’s a pharmacologist" and added that President Duterte was "out of his league when he talks about drugs".
Hart lives in New York with his wife and their three sons. In 2000, Hart learned that as a teenager, he had fathered a son who had been previously unknown to him. By the time Hart discovered that he had a third child, he also found out that this son had dropped out of high school and become involved in illegal drug sales. His recently discovered son also had been charged with a cocaine offense in Florida.Columbia University President's Award
Humanitarian Award from Mothers Against Teen Violence
2014 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society