Normally a search for drug addiction in Google news pulls up a similar thread of articles: arrests of dealers and addicts, big drug busts, a crime committed by a user or dealer, somebodies mug shot. Basically, the news tends to cover only the drug enforcement and criminal aspects of the drug addiction problem. This is unsurprising since for the past few decades the lens in which we view addicts and addiction has been smeared by the “War on Drugs”, which views drug users as criminals and deviants and seeks to punish rather than treat. However, with advances in medical technology, advances in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and a host of related fields, we understand addiction at the neurochemical and physiological level better than we ever have before. A shift in attitude that acknowledges addiction as a medical disease that needs to be treated as such (well established in the scientific community) is finally making its way into public consciousness, and most importantly, public policy.
I was recently at the 2015 Society for Neuroscience Conference, an enormous gathering of neuroscientist from around the world, held Oct 17-21 in Chicago. The conference hosts an overwhelming number of lectures, symposia, and workshops for scientists to share the latest developments in research in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, learning and memory, brain development, addiction, and many others neuroscience sub-disciplines. Several special lectures on neuroscience related-topics are also held and I had the pleasure of attending one of these special lectures given by the Honorable Jed S. Rakoff, Senior US District Judge for the Southern District of New York and founding member of the MacArthur Foundation Project on Law and Neuroscience, which researches issues on the intersection of law and neuroscience. Judge Rakoff spoke on how new advances in neuroscience research such as improved neuroimaging technologies and greater understanding into human cognition and decision-making, is changing how the law treats defendants. Significantly, Judge Rakoff spoke frequently about addiction, and he acknowledges what many do, that those arrested for non-violent offenses should be treated, not brutalized. However, he explained that many judge’s hands are tied when it comes to sentencing due to laws in place that set mandatory minimums for drug offenders. Judge Rakoff believes these mandatory minimum laws should be eliminated if progress is to be made toward providing treatment, rather than prison sentences, for drug addicts. It was refreshing to hear this come from such a distinguished judge and I hope it is a bellwether for changes in our legal system.
Of course, laws cannot changes without lawmakers to change them. But we may be seeing the beginning of shift in drug addiction policy for the first time in years.
The epidemic of addiction to prescription opioids and heroin has been making news for months now. I’ve blogged about this epidemic in several posts. One covering a review article describing the epidemic, another sharing an excellent article in the Huffington Post about the epidemic and available treatments for opioid addiction, and most recently, an important report released by the Centers for Disease Control that names opioid addiction as one of the counties top public health crises. Following this latter groundbreaking report by the CDC, policy-makers are finally starting to wake up to the problem.
In a speech in on October 21 in Charleston, West Virginia, one of the areas in the country worst hit by the opioid problem, President Obama held an hour-long public forum in which he promised $133 million dollars to combating the prescription opioid and heroin problem. The President gave about a 15-minute introduction to the event, which entailed some of the most refreshing comments about addiction to ever come from a US President.
Watch the full speech here:
President Obama began by citing shocking statistics stated in the CDC report concerning the surge in deaths due to prescription opioids, “More Americans now die from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes…The majority involve legal prescription drugs.” He went on to talk about heroin as an extension of prescription opioid abuse, “4 out of 5 heroin users start with prescription opioids”.
Of special significance was the shift in language he used to describe addiction and addicts, which contrasts strongly with the “War on Drugs” rhetoric of the previous administration. Obama said, “This is an illness and we have to treat is as such. We have to change our mindset”, which is something that scientists have been arguing for years but is just now being acknowledged by a US President.
Progress towards treating addiction cannot be made unless the biological and medical realities of the illness are understood and addicts are treated as patients rather than criminals. Indeed, stigma towards addicts is one of the biggest hurdles towards reforming public health policy and attitudes towards addiction and President Obama admitted this, “We can’t fight this epidemic without eliminating stigma.”
Some progress has been made under Obama’s watch and he and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell outlined several addiction reforms. One important change already in place is a stipulation of the Affordable Care Act that requires insurance to cover treatment for substance abuse disorders. Secretary Burwell outlined three points at the forum in West Virgina for an “evidence-based strategy” towards addiction prevention and treatment:
- Point 1: Changing prescribing practices. This is necessary to stem the over prescription of opioids and the dependence to the drugs that develops in some patients as result.
- Point 2: Expand medication-assisted treatment programs and to make sure patients can have access to treatment and behavioral counseling that can help them.
- Point 3: Increased access to naloxone. Naloxone counteracts the effects of opioids and should be a standard medication on hand for any first responder that deals with overdoses.
The details about implementing these strategies were not provided though.
However, Obama’s speech may be coming too late, as Dr. Andrew Kolodny, founder of the Phoenix House Treatment facilities in New York, believes. As reported in New York Times, Dr. Kolodyn is disappointed with Obama’s progress and thinks he has waited too long to take action and says that opioid epidemic problem has gotten considerably worse over under Obama’s watch.
I am anxious to see what changes may occur within the last year of Obama’s presidency in respect to the opioid epidemic. However, if more permanent changes are not made in the law, a conservative Republican president could easily over turn any changes made and revert to a failed Reagan-era “War on Drugs” approach.