Drug Professor’s $3.5 Million Study: Rich White New Yorkers Use Heroin

Dr. Ansley Hamid, formerly an associate professor of anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was drinking cups upon cups of Chinese green tea on a white futon in his West 49th Street apartment a few weeks after he was arrested for misusing a $3.5 million Federal grant.

The small room was lit by scented candles. A Dexter Gordon cassette whined in the background, and a stick of plumeria blossom incense burned near a closed window. Dr.Hamid, 55, wore black Nike sneakers, black sweatpants and a dark shirt.

He sipped his tea and launched into a speech about marijuana, the drug he loves to study: “There’s an error in the laws that say marijuana caused this or marijuana caused that,” he said, stroking his long white beard. “It’s the human agent that matters. When two things come together, the psychoactive human and the psychoactive plant, the burden, the real energy is with the psychoactive human, not with the plant. Marijuana can make you get the munchies or it can make you think to set up a school. White middle-class kids in America, when they smoke the marijuana and raid the fridge and eat all the ice cream–that’s one outcome of marijuana. They’re white Americans in an affluent situation, and they have a big fridge full of stuff. It’s not the marijuana that’s making them hungry. There’s another kid in the Caribbean smoking the same marijuana, and he begins to preach the Bible at you, and he’s fasting. He’s not getting the munchies at all. He wants to become more like a yogi.”

Three years ago, Dr. Hamid, then at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, hit the academic jackpot. After 11 years of distinguished, if unconventional, scholarship prying into New York City’s drug culture, he got $3.5 million from the Federally sponsored National Institute on Drug Abuse to study the spread of heroin in New York City from 1995 to 2000.

Three years later, at 7 A.M. on Monday, Oct. 25, five New York City police officers arrived at Dr. Hamid’s West 49th street apartment and arrested him. The charge? Misusing more than $5,000 of his $3.5 million to pay for travel to Trinidad, Florida and Hawaii, buying drugs for the addicts he interviewed, and purchasing CD’s–Mariah Carey, Spice Girls–that had nothing to do with his investigation into heroin, among other offenses. If convicted, Dr. Hamid faces 10 years in prison and fines of $250,000.

The arrest was the culmination of a two-year investigation by the United States Attorney’s office. When news of the professor’s alleged wrongdoings hit John Jay officials, Dr. Hamid was dismissed as principal beneficiary of the grant. Later, Dr. Hamid was suspended, then dismissed, from his post at John Jay College. Another grant, which Dr. Hamid received in 1997–to study the traffic of drugs between New York and the Caribbean–was dropped altogether. Dr. Hamid has little, if any, hope of returning to academic life. Now he spends his days tending to his shop, Sixth Sense, where he sells scented candles and incense. There, in what he calls “a brilliant site of anthropological research,” Dr. Hamid studies his customers. He has drafted an essay on the subject, which he plans to turn into a book. Meanwhile, he awaits his Federal Court hearing, scheduled for late December.

“The drug laws in this country are quite crazy,” said Dr. Hamid. “If you go down to the flower district, if you buy these poppy flowers dried–and they’re very popular in home decoration–if you buy it without the knowledge that by brewing it you can make a narcotic tea, then you’re home safe, but if you buy it with that knowledge, then you’re committing a crime.”

Born in Trinidad to Indian parents, Dr. Hamid arrived at Columbia University Teachers College in 1974. There, while working toward a degree in applied anthropology, he studied with Dr. Lambros Comitas, an expert in drug ethnography, and developed an expertise in drug policy and the drug culture of the inner city. During his 14 years at John Jay College, Dr. Hamid published more than 20 papers and one book, Drugs in America: Sociology, Economics and Politics (Little, Brown). His work in the 1980′s chronicling the spread of crack earned him praise from his colleagues. He was quoted in newspaper articles.

Before he and his $3.5 million grant parted ways, Dr. Hamid had found something surprising while charting the use of heroin in New York. All his research led him out of the ghettos, toward affluent white people. He returned to the sources who had helped him with his famous study of the spread of crack.

“I made rigorous searches in Harlem, and I couldn’t find a single heroin user,” Dr. Hamid said. “I scoured all my old haunts from the crack research and in Brooklyn–the children of the people who used crack and their younger brothers, and, in point of fact, they all shunned the stuff. It was white people who were using it. So that’s how I got into the white community–a vice president at a charitable foundation, authors, artists, lawyers.”

What Dr. Hamid found in his white subjects was something entirely new.

“Among middle- and upper-middle-class white New Yorkers, heroin doesn’t have the same deleterious influences on the population as it sometime does for poorer New Yorkers,” Dr. Hamid said. “It doesn’t have that kind of instant addiction and impoverishment that you sometimes hear about. They use their drugs in a more responsible manner. Think about it, people eat more responsibly when they have more money. It’s not all Kentucky Fried Chicken and fat stuff and whatnot. They can have more responsible interpersonal relationships. A love affair can be conducted without the police coming into the dispute, they can go to a psychiatrist or a family counselor. Any kind of behavior in a more protected affluent setting is going to have better outcomes than the same behavior in poorer circumstances. Falling in love with someone when you don’t have a job and she is on welfare is a very different thing than falling in love with someone with a stable job and an apartment.”

While the $3.5 million grant for the heroin study made Dr. Hamid’s career, he believes it also made his colleagues at John Jay College jealous. Dr. Hamid also believes that among his mostly white colleagues, his findings about the use of heroin among affluent white people made him a wanted man.

“We always go into Harlem and look at black people and ask, ‘What are you doing?’” Dr. Hamid said. “Why can’t we turn it around and go, ‘What are you doing on Park Avenue?’ This makes a lot of people angry. There’s a kind of unspoken colonization where white people believe that they can be the observers, that they can be the gazer but not the subject who is gazed upon.”

Dr. Hamid’s troubles began in 1997, when on the basis of an anonymous tip that said the professor had asked a per diem worker on the project to buy heroin as payment to “several junkies from Connecticut,” John Jay College suspended Dr. Hamid’s grants. A second grant for $3.8 million was canceled altogether. While the college decided his fate, Dr. Hamid filed a complaint in September 1998 with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Four months later, John Jay College suspended Dr. Hamid from his job with pay.

“This is very unfortunate,” Dr. Comitas said. “His reputation has been shredded to the point where it’s going to be very difficult to get back into work.”

Dr. Hamid lives by himself, but he keeps two rooms for his oldest son and a daughter by his second ex-wife, Vanessa. Dr. Hamid eats no meat, and dairy products only on special occasions. He pickles his own vegetables in glass jars in the back of his refrigerator. In the hallway near the front door there’s a poster of Bob Marley smoking a monstrous doobie.

In his bedroom, Dr. Hamid has an advertisement of drugs for sale from Amsterdam pasted on the wall. He owns a copy of the High Times Encyclopedia of Recreational Drugs . “This is a great book,” he said, fingering the pages of the 20-year-old volume. “Even at High Times , I know the editor down there, Dean Latimer, he doesn’t have a copy of this thing. Look at all these amazing photographs of hashish balls, marijuana.”

Above Dr. Hamid’s bed there’s a picture of Haile Selassie. He declined to comment on whether he has used drugs.

Dr. Hamid continues to observe the behavior of white Manhattanites. For them, the outlook is not very good, he believes.

“All the certitudes of race, kinship and ethnicity are being de-emphasized in contemporary American urban society, especially in Manhattan,” he said. “They don’t have a rooted connection to their past, to a deeper culture or to their fellow human beings. So that loneliness has to be compensated for in some kind of way. The shop serves as some kind of anchor in their lives. They take the incense and create an identity. Whites have a connection to a mythicized past. Their spirituality has been affected. It is common to affluent whites, the downplaying of material goods and interest in material things in favor of an affected spirituality. It’s ironic, of course, because it’s just their excellence in amassing material things which makes these goods available to them in the first place.”

Dr. Hamid wants to do more research, the kind of research only possible with a big fat grant.

“We really need to follow these people around,” he said. “We need much more research. Where do they go home? What do they do there? What do they eat? We need money to do that, but … that’s a road, that government funding, that I can’t go down again. That’s over for me.”