police cars lined up.

Policing Public Health: Carceral-Logic Lessons from a Mid-Size City

By Zain Lakhani, Alice Miller, Kayla Thomas, with Anna Wherry

When it comes to public health intervention in a contagion, policing remains a primary enforcement tool. And where a health state is intertwined with carceral logics, enforcement becomes coercive; emphasis is placed on the control of movement and behavior, rather than on support and care.

Our experience in New Haven during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic well illuminates this, while also revealing a logic of exceptional force lying dormant in municipal health practices.

Attending to the local is all the more important, albeit difficult, for fast moving and intensely quotidian practices, as COVID in the U.S. seems to be settling in as a pandemic of the local.

Our experience as activist-scholars working with a New Haven-based sex worker-led harm-reduction service and advocacy group, SWAN, suggests that by focusing on municipal practices, we can better understand what public health police power actually is. By orienting our scholarship toward the way social movements engage with local politics, we can then address how these police powers complicate the ability of those most at risk of both disease exposure and police abuse to engage with local authorities. Absent this engagement and critique, progressive policies for constructive state public health powers may be more vulnerable to attack from the right.

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Hundred dollar bills rolled up in a pill bottle

To Address the Overdose Epidemic, Tackle Pharma Industry Influence

By Liza Vertinsky

A recently released government report estimates that 93,000 people died from drug overdose in 2020. This estimate reflects a jump in the death toll of almost 30% from 2019 to 2020, with opioids as a primary driver.

In response, President Biden has called for historic levels of funding for the treatment and prevention of addiction and drug overdose.

Transforming mental health and addiction services is a critical part of tackling the overdose crisis, but it is not enough, on its own, to address this epidemic, or to prevent a future one. We must also alter the conditions that fueled expanded use, and abuse, in the first place. As I argue in Pharmaceutical (Re)capture, a forthcoming article in the Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law and Ethics, this includes a change in how we regulate markets for prescription drugs.

To truly combat the epidemic, I suggest, we have to understand how pain became such a lucrative business and how regulators failed to protect the public health as the market for prescription opioids grew. Then, we need to put this understanding to work in the redesign of pharmaceutical regulation.

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Traditional countryside scene in the Netherlands with windbreak lane of poplar trees in the wind under summer sky. Ens, Flevoland Province, the Netherlands.

Q&A with Mason Marks on New Psychedelics Law and Regulation Initiative

By Chloe Reichel

On June 30th, the Petrie-Flom Center announced the launch of a three-year research initiative, the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR), which is supported by a generous grant from the Saisei Foundation.

The Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School will advance evidence-based psychedelics law and policy.

In 2017, the FDA designated MDMA a breakthrough therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and in 2018 the agency recognized psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy for treatment-resistant depression. These designations indicate that psychedelics may represent substantial improvements over existing treatments for mental health conditions. Many other psychedelics, including ibogaine, ketamine, and dimethyltryptamine, are the focus of ongoing psychiatric research and commercialization efforts.

Despite the proliferation of clinical research centers and increasing private investment in psychedelic drug development, there is a relative lack of research on the ethical, legal, and social implications of psychedelics research, commerce, and therapeutics.

In the following interview, which has been edited and condensed, Senior Fellow and POPLAR Project Lead Mason Marks explains how POPLAR will fill this gap, and previews some of the initiative’s topics of inquiry.

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Kratom leaves and capsules.

A Sensible, Evidence-Based Proposal for Kratom Reform

By Dustin Marlan

In May 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the seizure of 37,500 tons of adulterated kratom in Florida, worth an estimated $1.3 million.

But rather than focusing on the fact that the seized substance was adulterated, FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock emphasized the alleged toxicity of kratom. This telling choice falls in line with recent efforts by the FDA to end U.S. kratom sales, distribution, and use, including a failed 2016 attempt to have kratom placed into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, along with other federally prohibited drugs such as cannabis, psilocybin, and heroin.

This reactionary prohibitionism is likely to do more harm than good. Moreover, it does not reflect the state of the science, which remains unsettled as to kratom’s risks and benefits.

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Healthcare concept of professional psychologist doctor consult in psychotherapy session or counsel diagnosis health.

The Case for Non-Police Response to Behavioral Health Crises

By Jennifer J. Carroll and Taleed El-Sabawi

People who use drugs continue to die at staggering rates, due not only to overdose from contaminated drug supply, but also due to our persistent reliance on the carceral system to respond to behavioral health crises.

This approach stems from the state-sanctioned violence of the War on Drugs. It takes various forms, including the use of police officers as first responders to behavioral health crises (including welfare checks), the excessive police use of force, and the use of potentially lethal restraint methods to subdue agitated persons. It also manifests in police officers’ use of jail cells as tools for forced “detox” believing that coerced withdrawal while in custody will reduce overdose risk or help someone “go clean” (it very clearly does not).

Evidence-based alternatives to police response for behavioral health crises exist. However, despite being both feasible and effective, these alternatives to police intervention remain the exception, rather than the rule.

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medical needles in a pile

How Supervised Injection Sites Can Help Address the Overdose Crisis

By Carly Roberts

Supervised injection sites, also known as safe injection sites, are among the most effective, evidence-based harm reduction tools available to counter the opioid overdose crisis.

Supervised injection sites are legally sanctioned locations that provide a hygienic space for people to inject pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of trained staff. Safe injection sites often provide additional services including needle exchanges, drug testing (especially important for detecting lethal fentanyl-laced drugs and preventing “mass overdose” events), and referral to treatment and social services.

The opioid overdose crisis in the U.S., which had a death toll of over 45,000 in 2018, and which is predicted to worsen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, warrants a bold, brave, and thorough response. Harm reduction programs, including supervised injection sites, should be integrated into opioid epidemic response strategies in order to save lives and improve individual and community outcomes.

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Dried psilocybe cubensis psilocybin magic mushrooms inside a plastic prescription medicine bottle isolated on white background.

The Myth of Psychedelic Exceptionalism

By Dustin Marlan

The “latest frontier” in drug law reform is the loosening of legal restrictions on psychedelics, such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, and ibogaine. But not all drug reform advocates are thrilled about this development.

Some are concerned that singling out psychedelics for legalization or decriminalization perpetuates the stigma surrounding other illegal drugs. Most prominently, Dr. Carl L. Hart, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Columbia University argues that all drugs “interact on receptors in the brain to produce their effects… we shouldn’t be treating some drugs as if they’re special while others are somehow evil.”

“Psychedelic exceptionalism” describes an ideology that claims psychedelics should be privileged for reform, but other purportedly more harmful drugs, like heroin and cocaine, should remain prohibited. As journalist Madison Margolin frames the question, “Should psychedelics be treated so differently from other drugs, given that any substance may have the power to soothe or scorch the human psyche, and body too?”

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New York, NY/USA - 08.31.2018: Overdose Awareness March.

Advancing a Public Health-Promoting National Opioid Policy

Register to attend “Addressing the Overdose Epidemic: Substance Use Policy for the Biden Administration” on March 24th.

By Jennifer D. Oliva & Kelly K. Dineen

“America’s drug regime is a monstrous, incoherent mess.”
– Dr. Carl L. Hart, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear (2021)

By any measure, American drug policy is an ineffective and costly failure.

The U.S. drug policy regime’s defining quality is its persistent adherence to the same approaches in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are unsuccessful, including supply-side tactics, fear mongering, and misinformation dissemination. These policies are racist by design and their myriad, negative impacts are disproportionately borne by marginalized and stigmatized communities.

The “war on drugs” and its repeated loop of lost battles have earned the nation the highest incarceration rate in the world, fomented a number of serious health issues related to drug use, and fueled a drug overdose and suicide crisis. Our shape-shifting overdose crisis recently claimed the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded during a twelve-month period in American history.

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New York, NY/USA - 08.31.2018: Overdose Awareness March

Bold Steps Needed to Correct Course in US Drug Policies

By Leo Beletsky, Dan Werb, Ayden Scheim, Jeanette Bowles, David Lucas, Nazlee Maghsoudi, and Akwasi Owusu-Bempah

The accelerating trajectory of the overdose crisis is an indictment of the legal and policy interventions deployed to address it. Indeed, at the same time as the U.S. has pursued some of the most draconian drug policies in the world, it has experienced one of the worst drug crises in its history.

The legal and institutional system of U.S. drug control remains defined by its racist, xenophobic, and colonialist roots. It is no surprise, then, that current policy approaches to drug use have amplified inequities across minoritized and economically marginalized Americans. Reliance on the criminal-legal system and supply-side interventions have disproportionately devastated Black and brown communities, while failing to prevent drug-related harms on the population level.

The Biden-Harris Administration has an unprecedented opportunity to chart a different path. The priorities for the Administration’s approach should flow directly from its stated principles: emphasis on scientific evidence and a focus on equity.

The following key areas require immediate, bold, and evidence-grounded action.

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Abortion rights protest following the Supreme Court decision for Whole Women's Health in 2016

Book Review: Mary Ziegler’s ‘Abortion and the Law in America’

By James Toomey

If you want to understand America, you must understand our politics of abortion. And if you want to understand our politics of abortion, you must read Mary Ziegler’s recent legal history, “Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present” (2020).

In comprehensive detail and in a singularly fair and thoughtful way, Ziegler tells the story of American regulation of abortion from the Supreme Court’s historic Roe v. Wade decision to the present, and looks ahead to an uncertain future. Through vignettes of activists who have dedicated their lives to one side of the debate or the other, Ziegler shows that, notwithstanding the superficial constancy of the abortion debate — one side proclaiming the constitutional, essential rights of the fetus, the other the similarly irreducible right of bodily autonomy — the character of the debate, and the kinds of arguments made, have shifted over the course of the last fifty years.

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