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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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?”

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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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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.

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gavel.

How to Reduce Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

By Caroline Hinnenkamp

Racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system are well documented –– people of color are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated.

Diversion efforts –– so named for their approach, which is to divert individuals away from the court process and instead offer opportunities for rehabilitation –– risk perpetuating these same racially disparate trends. Particularly if diversion programs have eligibility constraints based on prior records, people of color are more likely to be denied entry, because they are arrested and convicted at a higher rate than their white counterparts.

Historically, prosecutors tended to justify these constraints as mechanisms used to gauge an applicant’s capacity for rehabilitation, with recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) reduction as the central goal of diversion. Diversion was an alternative offered to the lucky few deemed “eligible” or “deserving,” with the implication being that reoffenders have a criminal disposition that is not amenable to rehabilitation.

But programs that use these screening methods tend to overlook the underlying facts and circumstances that might have brought about the applicant’s priors, such as implicit bias in law enforcement or the over-policing of specific communities. Without additional safeguards, the seemingly neutral constraint of “priors” fails to account for relevant pre-existing conditions, and risks barring entry to applicants who might otherwise benefit from diversion.

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Police car.

Police Should Not Be Enforcing Emergency Public Health Orders

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.

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Miami Downtown, FL, USA - MAY 31, 2020: Woman leading a group of demonstrators on road protesting for human rights and against racism.

Understanding the Role of Race in Health: Conclusions from the Symposium

By Craig Konnoth

In my introductory post to this symposium, I suggested that medicine and health tapped into a discourse of power that had the power to either harm or help. Medicine can trigger benefits in the law — what I call “medical civil rights,” where advocates rely on medicine’s language to trigger both formal legal rights and public advantage. At the same time, I acknowledged that black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), are often left behind.

In a midpoint reflection, I theorized the problem through the lens of a double bind. On one hand, medicine erases the needs of BIPOC and the harms they experience — the health harms experienced by frontline medical workers, or caused by school and residential segregation — so that they cannot access medical civil rights. On the other hand, BIPOC are rendered hypervisible in contexts where medicine continues to oppress. They are used in clinical trials and tarred with xenophobia and narratives of genetic difference. What should be done?

Several authors offer solutions. I separate them into three categories: (1) community reform, (2) social and legal reform, and (3) medical reform. Of course, all of these solutions are interrelated. Legal and policy change drives medicine; medical research drives law, society, and policy — and both are driven through community activism and consciousness.

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Police cars.

Law as a Determinant of Police Violence

By Osagie K. Obasogie

One idea that distinguishes public health from medicine and other health sciences is the social determinants of health. This concept emphasizes the environmental conditions that give rise to health outcomes — poverty, lack of access to resources, exposures to contaminants, etc. — rather than locating disease solely in biological or physiological processes bounded by human bodies. Following this lead, public health interventions are often focused on community practices that can improve the spaces in which people live. The public health approach is refreshingly simple: healthy communities and environments produce healthy people.

A public health framework for understanding how police and policing impact community health outcomes is necessary as we continue to have wide-ranging conversations about excessive use of force. Improving the health of local communities involves rethinking the laws that govern how police interact with the people they serve.

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