Carl Hart, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists and chair of the psychology department at Columbia University, was forced to cut a trip to the Philippines short earlier this month because of death threats sparked, in part, by propaganda disguised as media.
Hart, the author of High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, was in the Philippines participating in a policy forum on the drug war at the University of the Philippines.
The “Drug Issues, Different Perspectives” forum was organized by the Free Legal Assistance Group, or FLAG, Anti-Death Penalty Task Force; the University of the Philippines Diliman Office of the Chancellor; and the University of the Philippines College of Law Institute of Human Rights.
Hart shared some of his findings debunking hysterical claims that drug use is inherently pathological and causes users to become violent and otherwise incapable of functioning in their daily lives. Hart also did not shy away from fiercely criticizing Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, known for spearheading a deadly war on drugs in his country.
Duterte became furious when reporters asked him about Hart’s statements, calling Hart a “fool” and rejecting his research as nothing more than American “bullshit.”
“[Hart] said shabu does not damage the brain. That’s why that son of a bitch who has gone crazy came here to make announcements,” Duterte told Philstar. (“Shabu” is a slang term used in Hong Kong, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia to describe methamphetamine.)
Agnes Callamard, the director of Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and a United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, is an opponent of Duterte’s drug war.
Callamard, who also spoke during the policy forum, quoted one of Hart’s points on Twitter. This resulted in Duterte slamming her as being in collusion with “that black guy.”
“She should go [on] a honeymoon with that black guy, the American. I will pay for their travel,” Duterte told reporters at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. “They should be together and discuss.”
In addition to his decadeslong research on drug addiction, Hart has openly discussed his experimentation with methamphetamine. He has also been unrelenting in cutting through stigmatizing rhetoric that has, in large part, fueled the war on drugs. He never wavers in pointing out the similarities between the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drug Adderall and meth, as well as presenting evidence that cocaine and tobacco have similar effects on the fetus.
Two of the above substances are legal: Adderall, which is beloved by Big Pharma, and tobacco, which has been legally pushed in black and brown communities (pdf) for decades while discriminatory drug policies—specifically around crack and marijuana—have been used to terrorize and occupy those same communities.
Hart fearlessly pushes back against respectability politics and shame in black communities, demanding a shift in dialogue that includes human beings having autonomy over what they put into their own bodies; following the data on what is dangerous to consume and in what quantities; realizing that not all drug use is problematic; zeroing in on the drug war as an intentional and institutional war on the most vulnerable, oppressed and marginalized communities both domestic and abroad; and calling out state violence, specifically hypermilitarized policing, as more dangerous for black people than drugs.
“The most important conversation that I have with [my sons], in terms of drugs, is they are more likely to be arrested for drugs than their white friends,” Hart said in conversation with asha bandele, senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance, during a Facebook Live chat on The Root.
“The most potential negative impact or consequence is the police, not the drugs themselves,” Hart continued.
During the Drug Policy Alliance’s 2016 partner-gathering at Columbia University, Hart also urged attendees not to be distracted by the simplistic, media-driven narrative of a “gentler” war on drugs.
“They may be gentler on the [white] user, but black people are disproportionately arrested for the selling of opiates,” Hart said. “In the U.S., it’s comfortable to arrest black and brown bodies. Always pay attention to who’s getting arrested.”
If there is one thing that Hart always does, it’s make it plain; being in the Philippines, of course, didn’t change that.
According to Reuters, Duterte signed an executive order in February authorizing the creation of the Interagency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs.
ICAD consists of at least 21 state agencies, from “police, military and coast guard to health, education and social welfare.” Though the government claims that the purpose of the multipronged agency is to rehabilitate users and suppress dealers large and small, it has disproportionately targeted impoverished communities.
“More than 8,000 people have been killed since the drugs crackdown started eight months ago, 2,555 of them in what police say were shootouts during raids. [ICAD] says that 48,000 drugs suspects were arrested,” Reuters reports. Duterte has reportedly threatened to kill more.
Be clear: From the U.S., to Mexico, to Honduras, to Ghana, to Thailand, to the Philippines, the war on drugs is global.
In a Democracy Now! interview, Hart talked about the death threats he received for unpacking the misleading rhetoric around shabu and for speaking out against Duterte’s drug war in the Philippines.
From Democracy Now!:
When I was in the Philippines, the thing that I discovered is that it’s a lot worse than I originally thought it was. Duterte operates in intimidation. And so, not only is he the problem, but there are other political officials who are afraid to speak out. They are the problem. And Duterte has taken a page out of the 1980s U.S. drug war in that he’s using drugs to separate people, the issue of drugs to separate the poor people from the people who have means. And he is allowing or providing the environment so people could kill, as you pointed out, kill people who are engaged in drug use and in drug trafficking. And people are afraid to speak out against this wrong because Duterte has no qualms about having people’s lives be threatened. In fact, I discovered that people are being killed for as little as $100. It ranges from about $100 to $500 to have someone killed. And so, actually, I left the Philippines early because my life was threatened because of me speaking out against what Duterte was saying about drugs and what he’s doing. And so, we have it bad in the United States, but the Philippines, I have never seen anything like the Philippines.
See the entire interview below:
Predictably, neither Donald Trump nor anyone in his regime has repudiated Duterte’s vile statements about Hart, a U.S. citizen; nor has he voiced any concern about the death threats the acclaimed scientist has received.
In fact, Trump recently praised Duterte, gushed over their “very friendly” conversations and invited him to the White House over vehement objections from human rights groups.
GIven that Hart is equally vocal in his opposition to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ blatant push to escalate the drug war in the United States, Trump’s silence should come as no surprise.
Truth tellers such as Hart continue to put their lives on the line to end this inhumane war that has cost so many so much. History tells us that threats against black leaders deemed dangerous by those in power are rarely idle.
We should all be thankful for Hart’s life and his continued revolutionary work.