Columbia’s Carl Hart Flees Philippines After Being Targeted by President Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while addressing army troopers during the 120th anniversary celebration of the Philippine Army Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at Fort Bonifacio in suburban Taguig city, east of Manila, Philippines. Duterte threatened on Monday to unleash new attack aircraft and the "full power of the state" against communist rebels if a new round of peace talks fails, and insisted they accept new conditions including a halt to extortion and to territorial claims. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

A leading neuroscientist and critic of cannabis prohibition has cut short a trip to the Philippines after being ridiculed by President Rodrigo Duterte and subjected to death threats and racist comments.

Dr. Carl Hart, a Drug Policy Alliance board member and the chairman of Columbia University’s psychology department, was in the country for a drug policy forum hosted by the University of the Philippines. At the event, he challenged unfounded scientific claims put forward by the Philippine authorities, questioning the government’s assertion that drug use is inherently pathological and causes users to become violent and incapable of functioning in their daily lives.

Since his taking office in June 2016, President Duterte has maligned drug users and encouraged jobless Filipinos to go out and “kill all the drug addicts.” An estimated 7,000 people, mostly from poor communities, have died in the ensuing violence.

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The university forum brought together many of the brightest minds drug policy and social science, as well as Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. But it was Hart whom Duterte latched on to, responding to the the American’s criticism of him in typical strongman fashion.

“[Hart] said shabu does not damage the brain,” Duterte told the Philippine Star, using a regional slang term for methamphetamine. “That’s why that son of a bitch who has gone crazy came here to make announcements.”

That’s not exactly what Hart said. Hart’s message on meth and brain damage has been consistent since he co-authored an Open Societies paper on meth facts and fiction in 2014. In that paper, and in his speech in Quezon City, Hart said that “the data simply isn’t there” to justify the claim that meth use damages the brain. The research backing up that claim, Hart said in his speech last week, was done by exposing animals to large doses of meth–much higher than what humans normally take.

Here’s a video of Hart’s full presentation in Quezon City.


After railing against Hart, President Duterte turned his attention to the UN’s Callamard.

“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 the aftermath, the English-language Manila Times published this editorial cartoon depicting Hart at the conference.

wrcg7nnbiqhofd14xp89While at the forum, Hart received a flurry of death threats against him via social media. Fearing his life was in danger, Hart cut short his trip and returned to the United States.

Drug Policy Alliance Board President Ira Glasser said the threats against Hart shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“The Drug Policy Alliance condemns President Rodrigo Duterte for his implied threats against our board member, Dr. Carl Hart, the world-renowned neuroscientist who chairs Columbia University’s Department of Psychology. In light of the Duterte regime’s murderous history, such targeted statements cannot be taken lightly, or dismissed as rhetoric,” Glasser said in a statement. “Over the course of his presidency, Duterte has made chilling threats to human rights defenders in the Philippines, vowing to kill them if they attempt to intervene in his war on drugs.”