He invited drug users into his lab. What he discovered is changing what we know about addiction.

He offers an incredibly refreshing take — because he works from experience that few other scientists have.

What were you taught about drugs?


GIF via Partnership for a Drug-Free America.


Remember hearing about how even just trying an addictive drug once would mean you were hooked for good?

GIF via The Meth Project.

Well that's what Columbia University professor Carl Hart learned in school too.

So imagine his surprise when his own research into drug addiction revealed something very, very different.

Working with others, Hart revisited some long-standing research on lab rats that showed that rats would self-administer drugs until death. He learned that rats that live in sterile cages with nothing else to do chose to take drugs until they effectively committed suicide. But those offered alternatives to drugs — like sweets or some hanky-panky — often chose the alternatives. In other words, the addictive behavior was caused by the environment, not some attribute of the drug itself.

Then Hart did something unusual. He invited human drug users into his lab. He set up an experiment where he offered regular meth users a choice between drugs or money.

When presented with an attractive alternative ($20), even people who regularly use a drug like meth still chose the alternative.

GIF by jgmarcelino/Flickr.

Clearly, we need to change how we think about what drugs do to our brains.

Most drug users are not addicts, Hart says. Not even close.

So, why do people keep taking drugs, even when side effects are so damaging?

It's how people end up with lives of crime and poverty, right? Wrong.

Hart grew up in Miami, in a neighborhood where he saw and experienced a lot of drug use and crime. He went to school in order to understand drug addiction and to try to stop the crisis of drugs driving people into a life of crime and poverty. But now he believes most users are not addicts; they are recreational users. He's also shown that if people have good alternatives to drugs, they will choose the alternatives most of the time. So the "cycle" of drugs, crime, and poverty isn't really a cycle.

Drugs are a symptom of a society where people don't feel they have good options, Hart theorizes. They aren't the cause.

"What I now know is that the drugs themselves are not the real problem. The real problems are: poverty, unemployment, selective drug law enforcement, ignorance, and the dismissal of science surrounding these drugs."Carl Hart

The real injustice here, Hart wants us to understand, is that even though most users are white, over 80% of people convicted of drug crimes are black. 1 in 3 black males can expect to spend time in prison. Whites? 1 in 20.

This issue is of paramount importance to Hart. He's personally invested as a scientist, but also as a father. Hart knows his two sons are especially vulnerable in a society where black people are targeted by police in the enforcement of drug laws and where drug policies severely punish even occasional users as if they were serious criminals.

This is the kind of thinking — and science — that U.S. drug policy really needs.

He shares lots more good ideas in this talk at TEDMED.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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