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.

Read More

Field hospital in NY during COVID-19 pandemic.

Ethical and Legal Challenges Faced by Hospitals in New York’s First COVID-19 Surge

By Zachary E. Shapiro

After COVID-19 reached the United States, New York City quickly became the epicenter of the pandemic. Clinicians at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center turned to the Clinical Ethics Consultation Service to help meet the ethical challenges that arose. During the surge, the Ethics Team saw a marked increase in the volume of consultations for individual patients in the hospital, and took part in over 2,500 informal consultations with caregivers. Discussions centered around a wide range of ethical issues distinct from those that come up in routine practice. As one of the only lawyers in the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College, I encountered a myriad of legal concerns presented by the pandemic.

During the height of the surge in New York, there was no formal legal guidance available to clinicians concerning medical practice during a pandemic. Questions about legal immunity abounded, as unclear state and federal guidance left many doctors worried that they were taking personal and professional risks by providing care to COVID-19 patients.

The pandemic forced doctors to shift away from traditional standards of care in terms of resuscitation, patient care, and surrogate decision-making. The ethics team had to take new dynamics into account, such as the risk of infection to doctors and staff, and balance these factors in the risk/benefit calculations for treatments and interventions. Undertaking these shifts without federal or state guidance caused significant distress and concern. It often seemed that the law was not only not helpful, but an active hindrance to medical practice, as many health care workers were consumed by worry about the prospect of future liability. This concern persisted, even though the deviations in the standard of practice were necessitated by the realities of the pandemic overwhelming our health care system.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Prison watch tower.

Government Report Finds Care Deficits for Pregnant People in Federal Custody

By Elyssa Spitzer

Pregnant and postpartum people in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and U.S. Marshals Service receive care directed by policies that fail to meet national standards, according to a report recently issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

This, despite the fact that, incarcerated women are among the most vulnerable people, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In the GAO report’s terms, incarcerated women: “often have medical and mental health conditions that make their pregnancies a high risk for adverse outcomes, which is compounded by inconsistent access to adequate, quality pregnancy care and nutrition while in custody.”

Notably, the report found that the BOP and U.S. Marshals’ policies failed to satisfy the national standards — to say nothing of the gaps that may exist between written policy and the care that is, in fact, provided. Read More

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?”

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

lady justice.

Computational Psychiatry for Precision Sentencing in Criminal Law

By Francis X. Shen

A core failing of the criminal justice system is its inability to individualize criminal sentences and tailor probation and parole to meet the unique profile of each offender.

As legal scholar, and now federal judge Stephanos Bibas has observed, “All too often … sentencing guidelines and statutes act as sledgehammers rather than scalpels.”

As a result, dangerous offenders may be released, while offenders who pose little risk to society are left behind bars. And recidivism is common — the U.S. has an astounding recidivism rate of 80% — in part because the current criminal justice system largely fails to address mental health challenges, which are heavily over-represented in the justice system.

Advances in computational psychiatry, such as the deep phenotyping methods explored in this symposium, offer clinicians newfound abilities to practice precision psychiatry. The idea behind precision psychiatry is both simple and elusive: treat individuals as individuals. Yet advancing such a program in practice is “very ambitious” because no two individual brains — and the experiences those brains have had over a lifetime — are the same.

Deep phenotyping offers the criminal justice system the tools to improve public safety, identify low-risk offenders, and modify decision-making to reduce recidivism. Computational psychiatry can lead to what can be described as precision sentencing.

Read More

Police car.

Police Should Not Be Enforcing Emergency Public Health Orders

Cross-posted from COVID-19 and The Law, where it originally appeared on November 9, 2020. 

By Daniel Polonsky

On a weekend when police officers were handing masks to white residents in parks around New York City, NYPD Officer Francisco Garcia forced Donni Wright, a 33-year-old Black man, to the ground and knelt on his neck. Officer Garcia was one of 1,000 NYPD officers dispatched to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing. He had been investigating a report of individuals not wearing masks, although he himself was not wearing one. Police Chief Terence Monahan had previously assured reporters that the police would be educating the public and only breaking up large gatherings, not bothering individuals merely walking outside—“They don’t have a mask, we’ll give them a mask.” But Officer Garcia, who has settled six lawsuits for police misconduct for a combined $182,500, did more than educate that day. Multiple officers were in the middle of arresting two individuals after allegedly spotting a bag of marijuana when Mr. Wright spoke up in their defense. In response, Officer Garcia called him a racial epithet and accosted him, causing severe injuries to Mr. Wright’s back, ribs, and chest. What started as social distancing enforcement ended in racist, excessive use of force.

This incident highlights the overlap between the twin crises state and local governments face: halting the spread of COVID-19 and grappling with the systemic racism that characterizes the American system of policing.

Click here to read the full post on COVID-19 and The Law.