Science

Few researchers working with prohibited drugs such as heroin and psychedelics admit ‘inside knowledge’ of their use, but some argue that the culture of non-disclosure is irresponsible. By Jenny Valentish.

Drug research and lived experience

Neşe Devenot, psychedelics researcher at the University of Puget Sound.
Credit: Tracey Eller / Cosmic sister

Standing at the lectern at the 2009 Anex Australian Drugs Conference, Dr James Rowe came out to his peers in style. “I’d like to thank the sponsors,” he said, “for keeping me in buprenorphine.”

Rowe is an RMIT University researcher and lecturer. The sponsor was Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, which produces the opioid replacement he mentioned. Rowe has relied on the therapy since quitting heroin after a decade of use.

“These students, who are going to go on to become psychologists and social workers, are getting their information about drug use from the Herald Sun or A Current Affair,” says Rowe, who works his firsthand experience into talks and lectures. “They won’t realise that people who use drugs are as different to one another as coffee drinkers are. Even as a researcher, you’re limited to who you can interview. No doctor is going to come out about their use. The people in suits at needle exchanges won’t talk about it.”

While Rowe is one of the few academics in the drugs field who has publicly admitted to having insider knowledge – he’s become the “poster boy”, according to his concerned partner – the dilemma of outing oneself as a past or present drug user is a subject of much debate behind the scenes. Admission of personal experience may challenge stigma and promote transparency, but that stigma is also guaranteed to cause the individual their own problems.

Karen, for instance, is a researcher. She has had her name changed here, but is on the verge of outing herself as a consumer of psychoactive substances. “I’m not currently active, but I may have a relationship with those drugs in the future,” she says. “It’s a mindset.”

Karen believes that the idea of the researcher in an ivory tower is problematic. “One of my research areas is in providing information to people so they can make more informed decisions about drug use. There should be an honest dialogue, but if they ask me about my own use, I’m supposed to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t comment.’ ”

An individual’s stance on the admission of drug use will partly be influenced by their professional persuasion, such as whether informal first-person accounts should creep into academic language at all. But in any case, Karen says, the idea of scientists being objective observers in lab coats is a fallacy. “On a regular basis, the researcher’s own experience influences the questions they ask and what answers they decide are interesting, or they’ll home in on an interviewee who has had similar experiences to them.”

Michael, another Melbourne-based researcher who has had his name changed here, says there are two schools of thought when it comes to the field. “Psychology wants to be a science and science is objective,” he says, “but the flip side is sociology and anthropology, and here it’s expected that you’re a participating observer. You not only recognise your own subjectivity but you describe how that interacts with your interpretation of the research. I sit in the middle. In one of my papers I’ve stated outright my position when it comes to drug policy – that I’m a neoliberalist – but I didn’t come out to the degree of saying, ‘This is my history.’ ”

Part of Michael’s caution can be attributed to the fact that one of his early supervisors revealed her former heroin use at a drug summit in 1985. That was the year that Australia’s harm-minimisation drug strategy replaced restrictive policies. In theory, the timing should have been perfect.

“A journalist did a horrible piece on her and her history,” Michael recalls. “That experience taught me that if you do come out, do so with the right audience. I was the right audience. When she told our postgraduate class about her previous experiences, it really humanised her. As soon as she’d finished teaching I went up and asked her if she would supervise me for my PhD.”

On the risk of admitting to personal experience on public record, Michael paraphrases a social worker at a recent conference. “He said, ‘Look, I’m a gay man who’s come out of the closet. There’s no way in hell I’m following that act and coming out about whether or not I’ve used drugs. I’ve got a mortgage to pay and I’m employed by the Department of Health.’ ”

In going public, researchers may not face as many career risks as social workers, clinicians or psychiatrists, but to do so would provide ammunition to critics and could scupper future funding or collaborations.

Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks revealed his use of psychedelic drugs in 2012, three years before his death, in his book Hallucinations. He was reasonably safe to do so anyway, Karen believes, because it’s increasingly acceptable for researchers to talk about their psychedelic drug use as a tool for expanding the mind. “But,” she says, “this seems to leave out the idea of people just taking them to have fun.”

Michael has been administered drugs himself in a clinical setting as part of an Australian research trial. In some trials of psychedelic therapy internationally there are protocols that require therapists overseeing the researchers to be administered a dose of the psychedelic drug themselves as part of the training. “The irony is,” he says, “I could never admit to, say, taking ecstasy at the weekend.”

He continues: “I know there’s something in these drugs, in DMT [N,N-Dimethyltryptamine] in particular, that has tremendous therapeutic potential, in a way that I can’t yet articulate. If I talk about that I’m going to be seen as a hippie. That’s not the position I want to be portraying in the media or with other academics.”

More motivating, Michael says, are the international studies on psychedelic therapies that show promising results. “I want to be talking about that evidence-based research, so in that regard it’s important for me to not come out.”

On the surface, it seems as though the United States is pulling ahead on the issue of professional transparency. Professor Marc Lewis used his youthful experiences with methamphetamine and heroin to become a one-man case study in Memoirs of an Addicted Brain. Neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz did the same with her heroin use in Unbroken Brain. However, both talk in the past tense. In the US, a tale of redemptive recovery is acceptable, since it supports the dominant narrative of abstinence. This doesn’t fit with the view of the Australian researchers interviewed here, who support drug-law reform and are semi-active consumers.

There is a safer compromise. Neşe Devenot is a researcher of psychedelics at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state. She regularly references her own experience in published material, and in Psymposia magazine she advised fellow academics to “choose to be a psychedelic ally, rejecting the current state of the drug war while personally abstaining from psychedelic use”.

The “ally” idea is a tactic Karen intends to use. She’ll take the first step at a conference in May this year, at which she and a colleague plan to present a talk about the pros and cons of transparency. This will be followed by the publication of an open-access paper.

“It won’t be a confessional outpouring,” she says. “More like, ‘We are a group of researchers with lived experiences.’ We could add a couple of allies and say that for some of us this is personally relevant, but we’re not going to disentangle that for you.”

For Karen, the ethical implications are the most resounding. “I don’t want to get to the end of my career and we still don’t have decriminalisation. I don’t want to think, ‘I had a social responsibility and I chose to protect myself.’ I think about Bob Brown, who came out as gay in the 1970s despite facing prosecution. People like him paved the way. Who is suffering if I stay ‘in’? It’s a self-preservation problem to come out, but it’s a moral problem not to.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 28, 2017 as "Drug defendants". Subscribe here.

Jenny Valentish
is a journalist and the author of Woman of Substances, a book about addiction.