When drug policy researcher Jean-Sébastien Fallu saw a recent op-ed in the Atlantic argue that destigmatizing drug use has been “a profound mistake,” he was furious.
The piece said “cultural disapproval of harmful behavior can be a potent force for protecting public health and safety” and that we need “more consistent rejection of drug use, not less.”
Fallu, 50, an associate professor at Université de Montréal’s school of psychoeducation, believes the opposite is true. Stigma, he said, is leading to worse health inequities and excluding people from society. It’s a feeling he’s familiar with, as an academic who for years hid the fact that he uses drugs. But now he’s “come out” about the fact that he enjoys using LSD, MDMA, 2C-B (a stimulant and hallucinogenic), weed, and alcohol, and that he thinks they’ve made him a better, more confident person. He believes his honesty, coupled with the respect he’s garnered through his career, is “destroying people’s perception that if you use drugs you’re a bad person and you cannot achieve anything good.”
“I refuse to be dehumanized,” he said.
While many professionals use mind-altering substances behind closed doors, Fallu is among a growing group of academics who are openly discussing their drug use, both past and present, in a bid to reduce the stigma surrounding using drugs for fun as well as overcoming addiction. But having those conversations comes with certain risks, including a potential loss of job advancement for those who aren’t tenured, legal repercussions, and backlash from family members, friends, or colleagues, according to a handful of academics who spoke to VICE News.
Fallu, who started smoking weed as a teenager, was inspired to discuss his relationship with drugs publicly a few months after he saw Columbia University neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart speak at the International Harm Reduction Conference in Porto, Portugal in May 2019.
In his book Drug Use for Grown-Ups, which delves into the disproportionate consequences Black Americans face for doing drugs, Hart, a Black man, admitted to using heroin and other drugs regularly, and said he was better off for it. He also believes institutions like the National Institute on Drug Abuse exaggerate the negative impacts of using drugs while denying the benefits.
“I can look in the mirror. My children can have an example of what courage looks like in real time, not in history. It’s possible I’ll get some flak from my university, my employers. Such is life,” Hart told the Guardian about his candor.
At the conference, he issued a call to arms, encouraging other scholars to take similar stances. Fallu sat with that message for a few months. Up until that point, he’d avoided publicly admitting he used drugs; the farthest he’d go when discussing it during interviews with reporters was saying he used to do MDMA.
In October 2019, while delivering his own keynote to close out a drug policy conference in Quebec, he decided to come clean about the fact that he used drugs, but also that he used to sell cannabis and sexual services in his late teens and 20s, and is polyamorous. The response? A standing ovation.
“Stigma will always be there if we don’t obviously change our laws, our language, but also our representation,” he said.
“And I was sick of this hypocrisy. I know police officers, I know a judge, I know politicians, and many people who use drugs… But the public is not aware of that, they just see the same representation.” That representation, he added, perpetuates the idea that drug users are weak, sick, or immoral.
Plus, Fallu said, he had already calculated the risks he faced and decided that as a white man with tenure, he was able to take it on. While he heard about a few disapproving colleagues, the overall response was positive, he said. One student wrote him an email saying that as a poly drug user, she felt ostracized by her peers, but Fallu’s story made her feel validated and determined to keep studying.
Another colleague, based in France, said if Fallu worked as a researcher there, he probably would be “discredited by being too close to my study object.” He dismissed that argument as “silly,” pointing out that people who study nutrition, for example, also eat. The same logic, he added, has been unfairly applied to Black people researching racism.
“Science is not totally objective, everybody has a positionality,” he said “People who have lived experience not only can but are well positioned to study a topic they know.”
It’s an idea Magdalena Harris, professor of inclusion health sociology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has grappled with as both a researcher and former injection heroin user.
Harris, 50, was diagnosed with Hepatitis C when she was using heroin in her 20s; she stopped at age 29 after being arrested for a “violent incident” but ended up receiving a suspended sentence and going back to school. While doing her master’s in New Zealand, began doing qualitative research on the experiences of others with the illness.
“I wanted to do something that would make sense of my experiences,” she said.
She found those experiences helped her connect with people she was interviewing and ask more detailed questions, even if she didn’t disclose her past.
“It’s the body language, it’s the language you use, it’s the way you react when people talk about things,” she explained.
Harris considers herself a harm reductionist and said it makes sense for academics to also be activists.
“I think drug prohibition sucks. I don’t care whether people think I’ve got a bias or not but I haven’t seen it as being a problem. This isn’t about me going out and proclaiming things, this is about me going and doing some good solid research.”
But in a December 2021 edition of the International Journal of Drug Policy, Harris and other academics who have experience using drugs raised some of the issues they’ve faced, including a pressure to be seen as “thriving” in order to subvert stereotypes as out of control drug users; the hierarchy of drugs that are more or less stigmatized (club drugs are more acceptable than heroin, crack, and meth); and being relegated to a “subject” rather than an expert.
Harris added it’s “very easy” to disclose past drug use rather than current drug use, which she said she wouldn’t do.
“For me to come out and say I’m struggling or I’m back using or I dabble… that would be risky on multiple levels,” she said, both professionally and as a mother.
“I’m not going to disclose diddly squat.”
Disclosing a substance use disorder, particularly before the job security that comes with tenure, can be seen as a liability, which is why some of Alicia Andrzejewski’s mentors told her not to do it.
Andrzejewski, 35, an assistant professor of English at the College of William and Mary, has has been sober from alcohol for three months and has been public about her recovery journey in op-eds and on Twitter.
She said drinking wine or doing Adderall to get through workloads is common in academia and that the flexibility in schedules make it easy for addictions to thrive. Towards the end of her time drinking, she would mostly drink alone in the daytime while struggling to work on her book. One of her previous stints of abstinence ended at a panel that was serving wine.
“I did want to sort of offer my personal experience struggling with this specific culture in academia just so people who are organizing events could think more deeply about what the presence of alcohol means to those of us who struggle,” she said.
In part, Andrzejewski said drinking helped her deal with her anxiety, another topic she’s been open about, having dealt with panic attacks. In response, some of her fellow professors have told her, “You don’t want to be this open before tenure.”
But she said her writing helps her work through her own journey and to dispel some of the shame that comes with having an addiction.
“I think some people are cringing at my openness and that’s fine and that’s fair. I’m not writing for them, I’m writing for other people who are struggling.” (Full Story)