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Brains on Drugs: The Need for a Drug Policy that Embraces Scientific Understanding of Addiction

by Mike Borchardt, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor

Thumbnail-Mike-Borchardt.jpgThe strong showing in polls for marijuana legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington illustrate that America's attitudes toward illegal drugs is starting to shift. Though the attitudes of some voters are starting to shift on pot, there is still a strong disconnect, especially when it comes to harder drugs, between what we know about addiction and the policies we use to curb drug use. In their article in MJLST 11.1, "Why Neuroscience Matters for Rational Drug Policy," David M. Eagleman, Mark A. Correro, and Jyotpal Singh outline this disconnect between science and policy. As they explain, "Although addiction may involve volitional choices early on, it is best understood as a brain disease." Despite this being the general consensus of the scientific community, our drug policies do too little to address addiction as a disease.

A good example of this is the use of Suboxone (buprenorphine), a drug used to treat opiate addiction . The US government spent millions of dollars funding Reckitt Benckiser's development of Suboxone. It is an opiate which is much more difficult to overdose on than other drugs like heroin, and it is used to help manage withdrawal and cravings. Due to fears that it will be abused, Suboxone is difficult for many addicts to get. Doctors must undergo special training to prescribe it, and they are only allowed to write prescriptions for 30-100 patients a year. Additionally, many doctors are wary of prescribing it, as they don't want to draw addicts to their offices. This makes it more difficult than necessary for addicts to gain access to Suboxone--they turn to drug dealers on the street for a supply of it, and when the dealers don't have it, they use heroin or other opiates to satisfy their addiction.

Making Suboxone unnecessarily difficult for addicts to get is only one example of the disregard our drug policy shows towards our scientific understanding of addiction. As Eagleman, Correro, and Singh explain (at page 20) , "The United States has a history of combating the drug problem with increased law enforcement rather than customized intervention and rehabilitation." Despite the fact that treatment has been shown to be far more effective (both cost-effective and effective in reducing drug use) than incarceration, drug treatment programs are underfunded and stigmatized. As the economic recession in the US has led to tighter budgets, drug-treatment programs are often one of the first things on the chopping block. Though US drug policy has generally been, and still is, heavily focused on law enforcement as a solution to the drug problem, there have been some hopeful developments. The Affordable Care Act includes addiction treatment as one of the "Essential Health Benefits" insurers are required to provide. If the law is successful in getting more Americans, especially low-income Americans, health insurance, it could help provide avenues of treatment that were formally unavailable to drug-addicts due to their cost.