Should drug researchers be open about their own drug use? This topic of research was decades in the making for Monica Barratt, who studies the intersections between drugs and the digital world as a senior research fellow at RMIT University in Australia. As an undergrad 20 years ago—before she ever tried illicit drugs—she admits that she had some preconceived notions, not entirely positive, about drugs and people who use them.
Now, Dr. Barratt speaks quite openly about her own past drug use. But although she doesn’t really have the chance to go out clubbing or to music festivals anymore, she prefers not to describe her use only in the past tense. “I don’t want to cut that off. I certainly don’t think that [it fits into the] narrative of, you know, ‘this was a silly thing I did in the past, a silly mistake,’” she told Filter. “That narrative doesn’t fit for me.”
In August, she and some of her peers in the broad field of drug research released a paper examining both the benefits and potential risks that researchers face in disclosing past or present use. It found, for example, that academics with lived experience may have a leg-up in terms of the understanding they bring to their research—and can also, if they choose to open up about it, help combat the stigmatization of drug use. However, Barratt warns, disclosing this info publicly or to an employer comes with a slew of potential professional, personal or legal hazards.
Worldwide, the bulk of drug research focuses on associated problems and harms, notes Jules Netherland, managing director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance.* As she and colleagues described for Filter last year, the field thereby ignores pleasurable or stable drug use, and is missing all kinds of data points regarding people who use drugs in non-problematic ways. Academics disclosing their own drug use could help to address this imbalance—and demonstrate that people in a broad range of professions use drugs, helping to destigmatize use, she said.
Disclosed lived experience could help researchers to better connect with study participants and aid them in interpreting data, Dr. Netherland added. And openness about researchers’ drug use or lack of it could simply improve transparency.
“The ability to be open about your positionality and where you stand, I think, is … valuable,” she told Filter. “[Other] people should know, ideally, the perspective [researchers] are bringing into the research they do.” She pointed out that disclosing biases in research is normal practice—but the legality aspect makes a big difference when it comes to drug use.
Prominent, highly respected academics, and perhaps those with tenure, may have less to fear.
Dina Perrone, associate professor of criminology and justice at California State University Long Beach, agrees that removing the stigma around academics’ substance use could be a good thing, but discussed some associated risks—risks that are not always evenly distributed.
Prominent, highly respected academics, and perhaps those with tenure, may have less to fear in this area compared to a newly hired or more junior researcher, she said. There’s also a notable difference between past and present drug use when it comes to disclosing—people who said they used substances in the past but no longer do might get more of a pass.
It is vital to note, too, that unequal consequences of revealed drug use for people of different races, genders and socio-economic classes could apply just as much in academia as they do in wider society.
How drug use is discovered could also make a big difference, Dr. Perrone said. If a video appeared of an academic doing drugs in a public space, or doing drugs around their kids, it could make the professional or legal case against them that much worse. So too could consuming drugs with research subjects, particularly if the research in question is grant-funded. Perrone thinks that getting fired is probably more likely than getting charged with a crime, though that’s not impossible. “It really depends on how they disclose or how it becomes known,” she told Filter.
William McColl is the founder of McColl Strategies, providing consulting to organizations on public health, criminal justice and harm reduction issues, and has a background in law. He agrees that the most likely legal risks academics take when talking openly about drug use relate to their employers. For example, some schools may have drug-free workplace policies. But people who have used drugs in the past may have some protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.
In the US it is largely the possession and sale of drugs that are illegal, not the actual consumption of them, he said. But state laws vary—Ohio, for instance, seems to criminalize the use of some drugs in some cases, so having done drugs in the past might technically be prosecutable, he said.
“I guess that makes me think that anyone who wishes to make an admission of past use should indeed take a closer look at their state’s law and act accordingly (and maybe keep in mind whether a local prosecutor might want to make an example of a high profile case),” McColl told Filter.
Some academics are already open about their drug use. One of them is Carl Hart, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Columbia University, whose forthcoming book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, cites both his research and his own drug experiences in arguing against the criminalization and demonization of substances. Dr. Hart used a keynote speech at the 2019 Harm Reduction International Conference in Portugal to issue a call for privileged drug users to “get out of the closet” in support of their marginalized peers.
Magdalena Harris, an associate professor of the sociology of health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), is another. She has spoken of her past heroin use while she was in her 20s. She also told the LSHTM about it when applying for her position there, and, she told Filter, the school was supportive.
Her work sometimes concerns people who inject drugs, and her own past has helped her connect with her subjects, she said. “I can relate to them, and I can say ‘Look, I’ve been there too.’”
Dr. Harris is also working on a special issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy, slated to come out next year. The issue focuses on researchers and activists with lived experiences of drug use who were hired for their experience in the area—and what conflicts arose from that, and what supports they received.
“Every lawyer I’ve ever talked to has said, ‘You really should shut your mouth.’ But I don’t know that that’s in the service of the bigger issue.”
Ingrid Walker, associate professor of american studies at the University of Washington Tacoma, has also been open about her use of methamphetamine—she has even spoken about it in a Tedx Talk. For her personally, the importance of reducing stigma outweighs the risks.
“The whole legality of it could come crashing down on me at some point—I don’t know that it won’t,” she told Filter. “Every lawyer I’ve ever talked to has said, ‘You really should shut your mouth.’ But I don’t know that that’s in the service of the bigger issue.”
Dr. Walker and some fellow researchers are currently working on an anonymized survey, asking people in the field about their own drug use. She hopes that the findings—the team is due to send out the survey in the next few months—will provide a better sense of researchers’ collective lived experience.
“I think having some numbers will help inform a conversation,” she said, adding that the goal is also to get a sense of the reasons behind people’s use. “These are very complex human behaviours, and we have a very one-dimensional vocabulary with which to talk about them.”
According to Barratt, there’s a good chance that people working in drug research and harm reduction were drawn to these fields because of their personal experiences—although these might include the drug use of their friends or families, rather than their own. She hopes that her work has helped to amplify a conversation that will continue.
But in the end, everyone will need to weigh the pros and cons of disclosure themselves— it’s a personal choice, she emphasized. “I’m not suggesting and neither is the paper suggesting that we all have a duty to go out there and put our lives on the line in order to smash stereotypes.”
*The Drug Policy Alliance previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.