What drives a person to take a public stance on an issue or speak with the media as a subject matter expert? Ask Daniel Bear, Professor in the Faculty of Applied Health and Community Studies at Sheridan and he’ll tell you it comes down to validity and honesty and not pushing an agenda.
“As academics, our job is to find the truth,” explains Bear. “I’m privileged to have the time and energy and the knowledge and tools to look into issues affecting our society. As academics we get to spend time reflecting on our areas of expertise. We shouldn’t keep that knowledge to ourselves.”
“As academics, our job is to find the truth. I’m privileged to have the time and energy and the knowledge and tools to look into issues affecting our society” – Daniel Bear
Rather than preach what he learns, Bear’s approach is decidedly different. “I don’t want to be a know it all. I want to be the spark or catalyst that hopefully gets people talking. After all, isn’t that what we need in society? Don’t we need more people who engage in the ideas that make our society good or bad, healthy or weak?”
Bear’s issue is drugs and drugs policy. It’s been a passionate calling for over a decade – one that led to a PhD in social policy from the London School of Economics.
Attending high school in LA, he noticed a disproportionate number of minority students being targeted for drug possession, which didn’t feel right to him. That nagging feeling prompted him to investigate cannabis policies. “The more I dug in, the more frustrated I got,” says Bear.
It wasn’t until he met two great professors in sociology and history at Santa Monica College where he enrolled to study for a diploma in theatrical lighting that Bear realized the opportunities available to him and the possibility of continuing his education at university. “They encouraged me because they knew I had found a topic I liked, and they gave me the tools to keep looking and exploring. It was the first time I felt engaged in education.”
Transferring to the University of California at Santa Cruz, he pursued his undergraduate degree, examining the health aspects related to drug use, addiction, and harm reduction before working on the drug law reform project with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) following graduation.
Bear worked with the ACLU until he experienced the disheartening loss of a case he worked on in the eleventh circuit court of appeals in Georgia. Local police had been racially targeting South Asian owners of convenience stores across the state and accusing them of selling precursor products that could be used to make methyl amphetamine – among them tinfoil, matches and Sudafed.
“That broke me. We had done so much work and I lost so much sleep trying to get something that I knew was a righteous win. I knew something had gone wrong and the system had not worked how it was supposed to.”
Bear concluded that if he really wanted fix a malfunctioning system he needed a PhD. “As a researcher, you can say here’s the problem I’ve identified and not be constrained by a court in what you can say.” Rather than trying to prove that drug policy doesn’t work, Bear’s focus has been on trying to get policy to work better.
“There does need to be policies around drugs – whether that is taxation and regulation or prohibition or something in between. That is a discussion we can have. We need to consider how to regulate things so that the least amount of harm is caused.”
Bear moved to London and completed his Masters and PhD, studying how drugs and drugs policy are viewed by police. While in London, he took a training course by a Washington Post reporter about how to write opinion-editorials, or ‘op-eds’ for short.
“It’s something I had always wanted to do,” admits Bear. “I’ve always thought it was important to contribute to political discussions in a public forum. I saw this opportunity and jumped on it.”
“I’ve always thought it was important to contribute to political discussions in a public forum. I saw this opportunity and jumped on it” – Daniel Bear
Since then, Bear has penned 15 op-eds, which have been published in the Guardian UK, the Globe and Mail, Metro and Huffington Post. He’s been quoted in Vice Magazine and has spoken as an expert on German TV. He’s also recently co-published an article on digital ethnography in a peer reviewed academic journal on Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science.
“Mostly, I like to present options and information that might lead people to question things. These issues are on people’s minds. They’re seeing them in the news and they’re dealing with them in their own lives. Maybe what I can do is add a bit to their vocabulary. I can’t tell them what is right and wrong. That would be totally presumptuous but maybe I can give them more material to chew on.”
Bear’s life experiences have shaped his own voice, one that is balanced and informed, and one which will continue to weigh in on legal and societal issues when the timing and opportunity are right.
Pictured at top of page: Daniel Bear, Sheridan Professor in the Faculty of Applied Health and Community Studies
Written by: Christine Szustaczek, Director of Communications and External Relations at Sheridan.