Advertisement

Every day, about 90 Americans die from opioid overdoses. Tens of thousands die on a yearly basis—a number that has been steadily climbing for over a decade, leaving the U.S. with an epidemic of unseen proportions.

Science nor politics can keep up. But, a team of Stanford neuroscientists say that wouldn’t be the case if policies were guided more by science and less by other influences.

“Drug policy has never been based on our scientific understanding,” said Robert Malenka, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, in a recent press release. Instead, it is based mostly on culture and economic necessities—and a misguided desire to punish drug users harshly.

The four Stanford professors make their case for neuroscience-based drug policies in a Science article published last month. Each author is a member of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and its NeuroChoice project, which seeks to apply a deeper understanding of neural mechanisms supporting choice to addiction.

Drugs’ neurological influence on decision-making is a crucial part of the problem. Due to the substance’s effect on the decision-making process, persons dealing with addiction are only focused on the short-term, not the long-term.

Thus, the extended prison terms the law often prescribed for addicts is exactly opposite of what is needed.

“We have relied heavily on the length of a prison term as our primary lever for trying to influence drug use and drug-related crime,” said Robert MacCoun, co-author and Stanford professor of law. “But such sanction enhancements are psychologically remote and premised on an unrealistic model of rational planning with a long time horizon, which just isn’t consistent with how drug users behave.”

First author Keith Humphreys said smaller, more immediate incentives and punishments, such as a meal voucher in exchange for passing a drug test, would be a more suited “punishment.” In their paper, the scientists argue that basing policy on science rather than on a desire to punish addicts would improve lives, including victims of drug-related crimes.

On March 29, President Donald Trump issued an executive order establishing a commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis. A preliminary report outlining federal strategies to curb the epidemic was due June 26, but the panel missed its first deadline. Multiple media outlets suggest the report will be pushed back a few weeks, but the goal of submitting a final report to Trump by Oct. 1 is still viable.

Advertisement
Advertisement