STEM Students Explain how Drug Policy Impacts their Studies

STEM Students Explain how Drug Policy Impacts their Studies

Written by Elijah Ullman, Colorado State University SSDP Chapter Leader

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) Chapter Leaders call for an immediate end to the war on drugs in pursuit of scientific advancement and collective knowledge The drug war has long been a barrier to investigating the clinical efficacy of pharmacologically active compounds – how can a government place a total ban on a substance based entirely on subjective opinion without also investigating its mechanisms of action and toxicology? Public policy must be based on both qualitative and quantitative data. SSDP has long stood in solidarity with the millions whose lives have forever been adversely affected by this deplorable war against inanimate objects, public safety, freedom, and the pursuit of knowledge.

We interviewed some of our most active STEM major chapter leaders to find out why drug policy reform matters in their academic pursuits. 

Caroline Naughton, Northwestern University

Drug policy reform matters to me as a cognitive scientist for many reasons. First of all, it will allow us to realize that drugs are just objectifications of human needs and intentions already invested with cognitive and affective content. That is, drugs are just an externalized representation of the innate human motivation to alter our consciousness. Secondly, it is only when we treat all drugs with equal respect (under the law) that we can reasonably expect to live in a world where people and drugs interact purely cooperatively.

Monique Chavez, University of New Mexico School of Law 

I come from a background in Biology. Simply put, we are humans – all made up of specific chemical compounds, which react to drugs (including water, food, plants, pharma, etc.) very differently. All drugs interact with some component of our cells, whether that be receptors on the cells or enzymes within the cells. Drug policy reform matters to me as a scientist because it is necessary to understand, study, and analyze drug interactions, and the nature of chemical bonds formed by these interactions, which isn’t always possible due to the classification of most drugs in the CSA. Drug prohibition stands directly in the way of any research proposed, which is consistently denied, and to verify or authenticate any research that has been done thus far. Prohibition further stifles the progress of research – large pharmaceutical companies are able to pour millions of dollars into research and development for just one of their drugs while those studying the effects of marijuana are denied access due to limits of federal funding. There is a huge gap between research (which people think doesn’t exist yet) and federal illegality of most substances for which we want to conduct further research.

Emory Basso, Virginia Tech (alumnus)

From a systems engineering perspective, the drug war makes absolutely no sense. If we think of things that we generally agree upon to want less of, or to minimize, such as; harm to people/ deaths, crime and fatalities of crime, drugs in the hands of children, addiction, racism, etc…. And then try to think of some kind of policy to put in place that would minimize these things…. The current drug policy in this country would NOT be the most optimal. In fact, it is extremely far from optimal, almost one of the least optimal policies that I could think of. The horrendous effects of this terrible policy effect everyone and everything. This can be thought of as a dynamic systems model where things relate to each other in interconnected loops, and changes in some things affect the others. To skip all the numbers: the current drug policy is racist; terrible for health and well-being, the economy, research, the environment, education, the list goes on and on. The only people gaining from this system seem to be the very wealthy and powerful, as well as the large corporations. This infuriates me as a systems engineer and also as a human being in so many ways. Having the knowledge of how terrible this system is to the people and things that I love gives me the need to speak up and do something about it.

Jake Warnke, Colorado School of Mines

As a scientists and engineers at CSM, our entire academic and post-academic careers are based on the fact that we are capable of analyzing and evaluating information. And with that ability, which is meticulously drilled into our heads for 4 to 5 years, we become specialists at noticing the inherent flaws and inefficiencies in systems which have failed. It is painfully obvious to us, just as it is obvious to the law enforcement officials tasked with imposing this war, the public defenders tasked with fighting this war and the policy makers tasked with fixing this war, that the War on Drugs – and for that matter prohibition in general – is a failed system. Many of the laws that currently dictate drug policy today stem from, at best, inaccurate assumptions and, at worst, hateful ideologies. Not only are the current policies in place detrimental, but they actually promote a much more harmful reality for drug users and non-drug users alike. As scientists and engineers, as rational adults soon to enter the world, it is quite frankly insulting to be told that an unwinnable war is the only solution; especially when models for decriminalization, legalization and regulation are not only so widely available, but successful.

Drug policy matters to us because we also live in this world. We also have friends and families and someday we might have children, and we refuse to sit by and watch the development of harmful policies that could someday negatively impact their lives. Additionally, drug policy matters to us not just because of the potential risk to ourselves and our loved ones, but because of the real consequences that have already befallen so many people across the world. As free, rational-thinking members of society, we recognize the cruel mistreatment of our fellow humans, and we will never stop fighting for them or their loved ones.

As engineers, and especially as scientists, many of us are fully aware of the ways in which prohibition can limit scientific research. When a drug or a chemical is made illegal, it becomes nearly impossible to procure such molecules for academic pursuit. At the same time, people who wish to sell the now illegal substance can do so in an unregulated environment with a significant gain in profit. Additionally, the very few scientific studies that are allowed research illegal substances are typically funded by government agencies (NIH, NIDA, DEA) with set agendas. Because you have a system that only funds research bent on uncovering the negative consequences of drug use, an environment for bad science ensues. This exactly what happened in the 70’s when researchers suffocated rhesus monkeys with cannabis smoke for long periods of time, depriving them of oxygen, and then concluded that cannabis caused brain damage, followed by death. It took cannabis advocates nearly 6 years of court proceedings just to read the actual methodology of the report, at which point they immediately rejected it.

The ability of government agencies to pick and choose “scientific research” that agrees with their agenda, and for researchers to willingly take part in and publish such work, is morally corrupt. This is why, in a sense, just about the only thing prohibition does do well is inhibiting the scientific process. Instead of uncovering the reasons why some of these substances might be harmful, or in the reverse case actually therapeutic, prohibition fuels propaganda and skews legitimate science.