SAN FRANCISCO, June 23 (Xinhua) -- A team of Stanford university neuro-scientists and legal scholars argues that drug policies in the United States are at times exactly the opposite from what science-based policies would look like.
In a paper published in the latest issue of journal Science, the researchers argue that basing policy on science rather than on a desire to punish addicts would improve lives, including victims of drug-related crime.
"Drug policy has never been based on our scientific understanding," said Robert Malenka, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a co-author on the paper.
Around 50,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2015, and the number has been steadily climbing for at least the last decade and a half, according to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. A central problem, the authors argue, is that drug use warps the brain's decision-making mechanisms, so that what matters most to a person dealing with addiction is the here and now.
"We have an opioid epidemic that looks like it's going to be deadlier than AIDS, but the criminal justice system handles drug addiction in almost exactly opposite of what neuroscience and other behavioral sciences would suggest," said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and one of the leaders of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute's Neurochoice Big Idea initiative.
On average, 78 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses.
"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," Robert MacCoun, a professor of law, was quoted as saying in a news release from Stanford. "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."
What might work better, Humphreys said, is smaller, more immediate incentives and punishments, perhaps a meal voucher in exchange for passing a drug test, along with daily monitoring. The environment in which individuals live matters, too, especially when that environment pushes alcohol, cigarettes and prescription painkillers hard. Cigarette advertising, for example, works to make smoking seem like a pleasant escape from the grind of daily life.
Meanwhile, Humphreys noted, drug companies' advertising campaigns helped push American doctors to prescribe painkillers at much higher rates than in other countries, a fact that has likely contributed to the country's growing epidemic of opioid addiction.
The paper was timed to appear Thursday, four days before a report from a U.S. presidential commission on drug addiction.
The co-authors hope the commentary and the Neurochoice Initiative, which is designed to bring together neuroscientists, psychologists, public policy scholars and others to tackle drug addiction and find better treatments for dealing with the problem, will make a difference in a critical area of public policy.
The initiative has produced some intriguing results. For example, Professor of Psychology Brian Knutson and colleagues recently showed that brain scans could help predict which adolescents would initiate excessive drug use in the future. Those are the kinds of results, the authors write, that might guide better laws and practices in the future.
"To learn that addictive drugs distort the choice process is not the same as showing that addicts are incapable of making choices. Addicts already know full well that their behavior is inappropriate and stigmatized," MacCoun said. "But mostly I think questions of morality distract from very practical questions about what works and what doesn't work to reduce drug-related harm."