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The Rational Choices of Crack Addicts

Economics, Health, Psychology, medicine, rationality

Long before he brought people into his laboratory at Columbia University to smoke crack cocaine, Carl Hart saw its effects firsthand. Growing up in poverty, he watched relatives become crack addicts, living in squalor and stealing from their mothers. Childhood friends ended up in prisons and morgues.

Those addicts seemed enslaved by crack, like the laboratory rats that couldn’t stop pressing the lever for cocaine even as they were starving to death. The cocaine was providing such powerful dopamine stimulation to the brain’s reward center that the addicts couldn’t resist taking another hit.

At least, that was how it looked to Dr. Hart when he started his research career in the 1990s. Like other scientists, he hoped to find a neurological cure to addiction, some mechanism for blocking that dopamine activity in the brain so that people wouldn’t succumb to the otherwise irresistible craving for cocaine, heroin and other powerfully addictive drugs.

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