Elected Officials Should Listen to Ricky Bluthenthal

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February 26, 2014 - By Laura Thomas

One of my dearest wishes as a drug policy reformer is that elected officials and policy makers listened more closely to the researchers. What I often mean when I say that is that I wish they listened to Ricky Bluthenthal.

Ricky Bluthenthal, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. Before that he was a senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation, a dean and professor at California State University Dominguez Hills, and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine in Los Angeles, CA. He’s been published in top journals such as Addiction, American Journal of Public Health, American Journal of Epidemiology, and The Lancet.

Behind those impressive titles is a talented and rigorous harm reduction researcher who matches his brains with a heart for the people he studies. Ricky and his colleagues in academia across the country are the ones putting the evidence behind our evidence-based proposals to treat drug use as a health issue and not a criminal justice one. They give advocates the ammunition we need to push back against drug warriors caught up in ideology.

Ricky is a researcher who digs into the social contexts, ignored communities, racial disparities, and stigmatized behaviors of drug use. He has studied malt liquor stores, urban churches, and the impact of law enforcement practices on HIV risk behaviors.

His paper on Syringe exchange as a social movement: a case study of harm reduction in Oakland, California is one I still refer people to.  He looks closely at issues such as who gets access to treatment, uncovering differences by race, and analyzes the impact of where people live on their health and well-being.

Ricky’s research on syringe access has helped change laws across the country. The Drug Policy Alliance staff regularly cites his research on pharmacy non-prescription sales of syringes as HIV and hepatitis prevention. It’s in the fact sheet for AB 1743, the bill we’re working on this year to make pharmacy sales of syringes a permanent program. His studies have demonstrated how the criminalization of drug use and law enforcement practices can increase HIV risks for people who use drugs; people engage in riskier and more life-threatening practices when they are criminalized and stigmatized. Without Ricky Bluthenthal’s contributions, we would not have the evidence base we use to change laws and policy to reduce HIV and viral hepatitis risks and improve community health and safety.

Any yet when asked, he says that one of the things that he is most proud of, in a life full of published papers, academic accomplishments, and recognition, is that the syringe exchange program that he helped start in 1992 in Oakland, CA is still operating.  That, more than anything else, is why I wish elected officials everywhere listened to Ricky Bluthenthal.

Laura Thomas is the California deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance, New York Policy Office.

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