To get the public on board with the violent, expensive and ultimately unsuccessful War on Drugs, the government has had to spin some pretty elaborate stories about drugs and their users. The goal has been to strike fear into people about the looming dangers in order to justify militarizing against them.
However, thanks to the work of determined researchers who refused to accept these unfounded claims, most of the lies surrounding drugs have been debunked. In recent years the opinion of the American people has shifted to support a public health oriented outlook on drugs. The majority of Americans think cannabis should be regulated like alcohol, and most American medical doctors think medical marijuana should be legal. People everywhere are questioning the validity of sending people to jail for addictions that should be treated like health issues, and many world leaders and top economists now agree that the drug war has been a massive waste of resources and humanitarian disaster.
Behind these shifts in public opinion is the work of a few courageous researchers who study Schedule I, illegal drugs ranging from crack and meth to psychedelics and cannabis despite very real professional stigmas still associated with working with illegal drugs. They’ve exposed a variety of truths about these substances that have been skewed and hidden for decades.
Here are six researchers who are changing the way people think about drugs and addiction:
1. Carl Hart
Carl Hart is a neuroscientist and Columbia University psychology professor who is dismantling drug myths left and right, and combatting the racist war on drugs. In his book, High Price, he describes how he went from dealing drugs in a poor Miami community with high rates of crime and prevalent drug use, to studying addiction at one of the world’s top universities. He argues that drug use is a symptom of a broken society, which targets and criminalizes minority communities disproportionately. Via his personal history, Hart shows that addiction, crime and poverty do not stem from drug use, but vice versa. Drugs are a result of problems more deeply rooted in our society.
Hart’s clinical research dismantles some longstanding assumptions surrounding drug users in our society, most of which have carried over from the Nixon-era War on Drugs and crack panic. In studies of both crack and meth users, he found that people addicted to those substances actually tend to make much more rational decisions than most people have been led to believe. His work disproves the stigmas that surround drug users. In clinical trials in which he brought addicted drug users into a clinic and offered them various amounts of drugs, money and food, he disproved the idea that once a person is an “addict” they become a mindless drone willing to do anything for their next hit. Nurses administered “samples” of crack to the experimentees at the start of each day, then offered them additional crack samples throughout the day. An alternative offer was also made alongside each offer of crack. Participants could opt instead for a reward like $5 in cash or a $5 voucher to buy merchandise.
When the dose was high, the subject typically chose to continue smoking crack, but when the dose was lower they were more likely to trade it for $5. He found similar results in studies with meth addicts.
Hart told the New York Times, “They didn’t fit the caricature of the drug addict who can’t stop once he gets a taste,” noting that the addicts were making “rational economic decisions.”
He said 80 to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine won’t become addicted and told the Times, “the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.”
As Hart told AlterNet last June, his studies have shown that the pharmacological effects of drugs rarely lead to crime, “but the public conflates these issues regardless.”
“Certainly, we have given thousands of doses of crack cocaine and methamphetamine to people in our lab, and never had any problems with violence or anything like that,” he said. “That tells you it’s not the pharmacology of the drug, but some interaction with the environment or environmental conditions, that would probably happen without the drug.”
Hart’s work is forcing a powerful, necessary conversation around the various ways our society wrongly demonizes people who use drugs. He is helping to place the issue of drug use into a realistic, health-oriented arena.
Often referred to as the father or marijuana, Rafael Mechulum’s work to understand the cannabis plant and its various psychoactive and medicinal properties is unmatched. He is an Israeli organic chemist and the first to isolate and identify the compound THC, which is behind the marijuana “high” that so many people enjoy. He has also led invaluable studies looking into various other compounds, or “cannabinoids,” that make up the cannabis plant (including their isolation, structure elucidation and synthesis).
Cannabinoids interact naturally with the human brain’s endocannabinoid system, which is full of receptors that specifically interpret and integrate cannabinoids. This is the group of receptors and neuromodulatory lipids that control things like pain, mood, memory and appetite. Among the other cannabinoids Mechoulam’s research identified is cannabidiol, or CBD, which is responsible for many of cannabis’ powerful healing effects. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta has helped popularize CBD in recent years, after learning about its miraculous healing effects on children with epilepsy and tumors.
Mechoulam’s pioneering work has helped to change the way people interact with, and use, the cannabis plant. While it was once bred primarily for its psychoactive effects (and sometimes as an alternative pain relief for cancer patients), growers are increasingly breeding for high rates of CBD and other important cannabinoids.
3. Rick Doblin
Rick Doblin has devoted more than 20 years of his life to clinical research on psychedelic substances and cannabis. He founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is at the global forefront of government-approved psychedelic research. He initially formed the organization in 1982, in response to the government’s criminalization of MDMA (aka “ecstasy” and “Molly”).
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, groups of psychiatrists, marriage counselors and therapists were using the not-yet-illegal substance to enhance the therapeutic process. As MDMA became more and more popular as a party drug, Doblin and fellow psychedelic therapists anticipated that the Drug Enforcement Administration would move to criminalize it.
Doblin and fellow therapists formed a non-profit group called Earth Metabolic Design Laboratories (EMDL) to bolster awareness of the therapeutic use of MDMA.
The DEA had announced its intention to designate MDMA as a Schedule I substance in 1984. This categorization meant overt restriction and regulation of the drug’s availability, and indicated that it had high abuse potential and held no accepted medical use. EMDL organized the scientific and medical communities to petition the DEA for a scheduling hearing in which the group argued that MDMA belonged in the Schedule III category, which would permit the continuation of MDMA’s use in psychotherapy. The decision to place MDMA in Schedule I was reached following appeals in 1988 after the DEA overruled a DEA administrative law judge’s recommendation that it be placed in Schedule III.
MAPS was founded in response. Today it continues to support the study of the healing potential of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, in addition to other psychedelics and cannabis, on psychological and emotional damage caused by sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other traumas. An upcoming study in Marin, California will look at MDMA’s efficacy in treating anxiety in people with life-threatening illnesses.
4. Sue Sisley
As a psychiatrist and physician focused on internal medicine, Sue Sisley regularly treats first responders and military veterans with PTSD. After years observing and speaking with patients she learned many of them were using marijuana to successfully manage their symptoms. Sisley was excited at the opportunity to conduct a study which would look at cannabis’ effect on 12 combat veterans with treatment-resistant PTSD.
While working at the University of Arizona, where the study was to take place, Sisley became a vocal advocate for cannabis medicine, and the necessity of studies into its healing effects. Unexpectedly, and without explanation, the university terminated Sisley in July. University of Arizona Institutional Review Board (IRB), as well as the FDA, had approved the study’s protocols, but Sisley and others suspect she was fired due to her outspoken support for medical marijuana.
Rick Doblin of MAPS called the university’s decision a “repression of science for political purposes.”
“It is astonishing in this day and age,” he said.
Sisley continues to be a powerful advocate in favor of increased research on the benefits of cannabis.
5. Bia Labate
Bia Labate has a PhD in anthropology and studies the way people interact with psychoactive plant medicines. Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, she is a visiting professor at the Drug Policy Program of the Center for Economic Research and Education (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE) in Aguascalientes, Mexico. She is also a research associate at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ohio’s Heidelberg University.
Much of her research focuses on ayahuasca — an ancient ritual brew of the indigenous Amazonian people, derived from two plant extracts. Because ayahuasca contains the Schedule I substance DMT, it is illegal for general use in the U.S., however it is allowed to be used for specific religious purposes. Labate advocates for the importance of preserving shamanic and other ceremonial practices in the global study of plant medicines. She says that if ayahuasca is studied only for biomedical purposes, we will lose important knowledge about the healing properties of the plant, as well as the cultural significances therein.
Labate is also outspoken against the destructive global War on Drugs. Her work is helping to remind the world of the significance of drugs and altered states of consciousness throughout human history, and across all cultures.
6. Gabor Mate
Gabor Mate is a medical doctor from Vancouver who is a prominent ayahuasca researcher. He has worked with psychedelic medicine among aboriginal people, as well as in contemporary, non-indigenous healing circles. He contends that therapy assisted by psychedelics, and ayahuasca in particular, can untangle complex, unconscious psychological stresses. He claims these stresses underlie and contribute to all chronic medical conditions, from cancer and addiction to depression and multiple sclerosis.
Mate speaks and writes about the various ways the War on Drugs is actually a war on drug addicts. He studies the addiction cessation potential of psychedelic substances. In a speech during the Psychedelic Science 2013 conference, Mate asserted an inherant connection between psychological/environmental experiences and medical afflictions.
Following his speech at the conference, Mate spoke to AlterNet on the importance of an integrative healthcare model:
“The traditional practices of aboriginal peoples, as in traditional Chinese medicine, have always assumed mind and body are inseparable,” Mate says. “That has now been validated by modern science, but modern medicine still ignores that reality. So, practices that incorporate a holistic understanding of a human being, where we don’t see the individual as separate from the environment, and we don’t see the mind as separate from the body, are essential to a complete understanding of human beings. Not as alternatives, but as part of a much more complete understanding of what it takes to heal people, and what it takes to stay healthy.”
When asked for an example Mate said:
“Imagine if I pulled a gun on you right now,” he says. “Your whole physiology would change. I didn’t touch you, but your hormones would change, your nervous system would change, your heart rate would speed up, cortical adrenaline would be shooting out of your adrenal gland, and your brain would be in a different state. And that happens 24/7. Maybe not in such a dramatic fashion, but it happens all the time. So, in chronic illness you see the long-term effects of mind on body and vice versa, body on mind. The point is not that these are connected; you can’t separate them, they are one entity.”
While Mate is an outspoken advocate of psychedelics as one possible route to health, he is careful to point out that they are just one potential mode of healing, not the be-all, end-all answer to health issues.
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.