drug policies, said Carl Hart, PhD, an associate professor of
psychology at Columbia University and author of “High Price:
A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery that Challenges
Everything You Know about Drugs and Society.”
Hart described how, as a young man in the 1980s, he
believed the conventional wisdom that crack cocaine was
responsible for unemployment, violence and other destructive
forces within the African-American community. After all, he
said, President Reagan said so, and the country had passed
legislation that punished users of crack 100 times more than
users of powdered cocaine.
But when Hart began investigating, he made some startling
discoveries: Crack and powdered cocaine are the same drug
chemically. The overwhelming majority of people who use
drugs do so without problems. And perhaps because of
scientists’ tendency to err on the side of caution, scientists have
exaggerated the perils of drugs.
“Drugs are not the problem,” said Hart.
The excessive focus on pathology has had devastating, real-life consequences, including mass incarceration of African-Americans. It “has helped to create an unrealistic focus on
eliminating certain drugs from our society at all costs, and too
often the costs are paid by people I care about — people who
are poor, black, shut out,” said Hart.
By translating scientific findings into lay language, Hart’s
book has attracted far more attention than his scientific papers,
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet with former presidents
and current mayors about drug policy,” he said. “I’m speaking to
Bernie Sanders now about his drug policy.”
Communicating for change
But psychologists eager to change the world have to be careful
how they frame their messages, warned psychologist Lynn
Davey, PhD, whose consulting firm Davey Strategies helps
experts and advocates translate their expertise in the service of
solving societal problems.
Davey pointed to the “designated driver” campaign
as an example of what can go wrong when issues aren’t
framed properly. “This is always held up as a prototype of
a successful campaign,” said Davey, noting the campaign’s
$1.3 billion in donated media, endorsements from presidents
and other prominent individuals and polls showing that 84
percent of Americans recall seeing or hearing a public service
announcement on the topic.
Yet alcohol-impaired drivers are still responsible for almost a
third of all traffic fatalities, with those drivers eight times more
likely to have prior driving-under-the-influence violations. “The
campaign raised awareness, but to what effect?” said Davey. “It’s
not keeping the greatest offenders off the road.”
What’s more, she said, it has been harder to pass legislation
for interventions that do work — ignition interlocks and
roadside sobriety checks, for example — because the issue has
been framed as one of personal responsibility. “It’s hard for
policymakers to see the structural, systemic, public dimensions
of the issue,” she said, urging advocates to avoid showcasing
individual success stories in their own campaigns.
Instead of focusing on individual solutions to societal
problems, said Davey, advocates should explain why the issue
matters, what the problem is, how it can be solved and who can
solve it. Messages should also be framed around values that help
cue how people think about the issue, said Davey, suggesting
such values as prosperity, American ingenuity and stewardship.
“It’s about appealing to values that structure meaning and
then connecting the dots among causes, consequences and
solutions,” said Davey. n
PUBLIC INTEREST LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE
Dr. Dolores Cimini, who chairs
APA’s Board for the Advancement
of Psychology in the Public
Interest, discussed the important
role psychology has to play in
current issues, including the
bombings in Paris and Beirut, the
violence against black men in
America and gay adoption.