Students gathered in Lecture Center 100 on Thursday, Nov. 17 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. to hear professors of various disciplines speak on different drug-related topics and issues for the first time in a panel-style discussion.
The panel was organized by Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) member Wendy Cohen. SSDP is an international organization and other chapters have hosted debates, something Cohen wanted to hold a variant of.
“We figured, why not bring discussion inward into our community and just start the dialogue between different professors and different departments?” Cohen said. “It is a problem on campus and we just don’t really talk about it here, so I figured why not start from within before getting outside people.”
At first, Cohen said she had a difficult time getting professors to speak on the subject as it is controversial and many did not feel they were experts or comfortable enough with the subject matter. SSDP formed a list of about 20 to 25 possible professors to join. Although many did not want to participate in the program, they were able to direct the group to other professors who might be more helpful.
The main reason Cohen created the event was to inform students about drug use, since she said she believes many students take drugs without realizing what they are doing to both their mind and body. She hoped the panel would bring further awareness to the issue while fostering a dialogue.
Although SSDP has a clear stance on current drug policies, Cohen said the group wanted to put their perspective aside for the panel.
“We really wanted to take that away from this event and just make it more of an open discussion so that people can talk about how they feel about it without feeling pressured to say one thing or another,” Cohen said.
The speakers included Giordana Grossi (psychology), Laura Ebert (Latin American Studies), AJ Williams-Meyers (Black Studies), Irwin Sperber (sociology), Zelbert Moore (Latin American Studies/Black Studies) and Kate McCoy (educational studies). Each professor discussed a different topic for 10 minutes and then there was an open discussion for questions.
Grossi talked about how drugs affect the nervous system, mostly through their “action on the synapses.” She said she felt students might not know enough about how drugs affect brain function and thought it was important information to deliver.
Sperber said there must be a coherent strategy for addressing both licit and illicit substances to deter students from experimentation. However, his main topic was the desire for decriminalization of marijuana.
“Those advocating the decriminalization of pot and other popular substances, for example, pay little attention to the public health risks, the environmental impact and the psychological harm rising from their widespread use,” Sperber said.
He concluded his portion by offering the solution of sanctions on the use of any drugs, preceded by a thorough educational program “on a community-wide basis.”
Ebert, a professor of a Latin American economic development course, covered the concept of supply and demand in the drug market in Latin America. He talked about the increasing demand in developing Latin American countries, but how supply is more complicated. She said those at the top earn huge profits, but the poor farmers at the bottom who produce drugs such as cocaine and heroin live in “remote and underdeveloped” areas.
“These farmers and their families live on subsistence in unfertile land (although conducive for growing cocoa leaves) and live in communities with little state oversight in terms of the rule of law,” Ebert said. “Therefore high end drug gangs and thugs can easily rule over poor farmers extracting from them leaves and opium poppies at low cost.”
The drug war and its collateral damage was Moore’s topic. He told stories about innocent people hurt as a result of drug war violence and also went into the incarceration of young black men because of this.
Williams-Meyers focused on the book, “The New Jim Crow,” which is about the racial biases in the war on drugs and who is adversely affected. One idea mentioned was immaculate perception, which is that all out perspectives have been molded, shaped and are controlled by media portrayals. Williams-Meyers said studies reveal that even if people think they are not racists, they still have unconscious racist reactions to photos.
McCoy’s presentation was titled, “Re-thinking Drug Education.” She said scare tactics and intimidation often lead to misinformation, which costs credibility and how reasons for drug use are often “oversimplified.”
She continued into what a better drug education would entail. She feels that there needs to be a better understanding of why people choose drugs. Some theories include human drive and living in a “medicine society.”
She said she also felt that more accurate information about drugs in general must be provided.
“We need better and more accurate information about drugs themselves and what they do physiologically, what are the dangers, how do people use them, how might they be used more safely if people do decide to use them,” McCoy said. “If we start thinking about all the things that are drugs and how we moderate our use of those things it can translate over into these other drugs that we think are really dangerous.”
The discussion at the end of the presentations involved a debate between McCoy and Moore about drug testing on welfare recipients, something McCoy highly opposed and Moore favored. Some students also expressed feelings against Sperber’s critique of the magazine High Times.
With a wide range of lecturers and an involved discussion, Cohen hoped students would leave feeling more comfortable with the subject of drugs and the surrounding issues.
“If someone walks out more educated on drugs than when they walked in, then I feel like we have achieved our goal,” Cohen said.
McCoy’s drug education and policy class is holding a final exhibition with more information on Dec. 19 from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. in the Honors Center and Cohen plans to hold a follow up panel in the spring to “dig deeper” into the issues most interesting to attendees.