Volkow: ‘Aura of Illegality’ for Drugs Must End

Volkow: ‘Aura of Illegality’ for Drugs Must End

The government bears some responsibility in perpetuating stigmas against drug addiction that have created barriers to treatment, the head of the nation’s top drug research agency says.

In an op-ed published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, discussed the stigmatization of drug use and the negative consequences it’s had for people suffering from substance misuse disorders. Part of that stigma comes from the enforcement of punitive drug policies, she said, including some that remain in effect.

“Stigma remains one of the biggest obstacles to confronting America’s current drug crisis,” she wrote. “Government policies, including criminal justice measures, often reflect — and contribute to — stigma. When we penalize people who use drugs because of an addiction, we suggest that their use is a character flaw rather than a medical condition. And when we incarcerate addicted individuals, we decrease their access to treatment and exacerbate the personal and societal consequences of their substance use.”

Volkow, who was once against marijuana legalization, argues now there’s a need to decriminalize drug possession and emphasizes the drug war has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

“The aura of illegality affects the treatment of people with addiction,” Volkow wrote. “For example, some treatment programs expel patients for positive urine samples, as if relapse were not simply a known symptom of the disorder and a clinical signal to adjust the treatment approach but instead actual wrongdoing.”

Stigma has also slowed the adoption of harm-reduction programs like syringe exchange and access to the anti-overdose medication naloxone “out of a moralistic — as well as factually incorrect — belief that those measures encourage illegal drug use,” Volkow wrote.

“We need a large-scale social intervention to change public attitudes toward addiction and people who have the disease. Besides ensuring proper training and the resources needed to help patients with substance use disorders, we need to seriously reconsider policies — not only laws but regulations and practices in health care and other settings — that promote viewing substance use as wrongdoing.”

Don’t miss our 50 at 50 series: one current or former prisoner published a day until New Year’s Day 2022.

Volkow has argued there’s no need for further research to prove the criminalization of drugs has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

She acknowledged in a recent podcast with Ethan Nadelmann that cannabis legalization has not led to increased youth use despite her prior fears, and she spoke about the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelics that have long been deemed “dangerous” under federal law. She added that scientists should be allowed to investigate products from state-legal dispensaries instead of using only government-grown plants.

NIDA separately submitted a report to congressional lawmakers emphasizing the Schedule I status of controlled substances like cannabis is preventing or discouraging research into their potential risks and benefits. Current restrictions that block scientists from studying the actual cannabinoid products consumers can purchase at dispensaries is impeding research to an extent that constitutes a public-health concern.

This piece is part of a content-sharing arrangement between The News Station and Marijuana Moment.

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