Blog Post

Making Drug Policy More Evidence-based: The Role of Scientists and Other Scholars

Julie Netherland

A few years ago Nicholas Kristof, an op ed writer for the New York Times, penned an opinion piece titled Professors, We Need You! Nowhere is this truer than in drug policy where scientific evidence seems to have little to do with how policy gets made. Despite a robust research base and a plethora of talented scholars working on drugs and drug policy, much of our drug policy flies in the face of both reason and research.

Examples of science being ignored – especially if it’s from abroad -- abound. For instance, supervised injection facilities (SIFs) (where people can inject pre-obtained drugs in hygienic space with medical supervision) have been proven to reduce the spread of infectious disease, overdose deaths, and improperly discarded injection equipment; to increase public order, access to drug treatment and other services; and to save taxpayer money. But SIFs are operational nowhere in the U.S. and remain highly controversial. Heroin assisted treatment has been proven effective in study after study, but remains off the table for U.S. policymakers. And the story of obstacles to even conducting research on the therapeutic benefits of marijuana is well known. On the prevention side, millions have been invested in DARE, a program found to be ineffective again and again. And an emerging body of work showing the disastrous public health impact of mass incarceration has yet to be taken seriously by policymakers. And this is just the tip of proverbial iceberg.

Given the irrationality of so much drug policy, it’s tempting to throw up our hands and abandon evidence-based policy altogether. But too much is at stake. The legacy of our 40-year failed war on drugs – mass incarceration and criminalization, egregious racial disparities, soaring rates of overdose, to name just a few things – painfully demonstrates the consequences of policy based on ideology instead of evidence. Now may be a particularly opportune time to make drug policy more evidence-based. We seem to be entering an era where there’s a least a modest respect for science, if the turn towards medication assisted treatment and syringe exchange programs is any indication.

It’s naïve to think that the gap between evidence and policy is because policymakers simply do not having access to the latest research. Rather, a complex array of factors likely contributes to the chasm between research and policy when it comes to drugs. One such factor is the bias built into the research landscape itself. For example, there are systematic biases in who gets funded and what gets studied by drug researchers and debates about what even constitutes ‘success’ in drug policy.

On the policy side, policymakers are responding to a lot more than just what the research says works. They are influenced by the local political imperatives on the ground, the latest media story, the voices of their constituents and colleagues, and a host of other concerns.

For scholars, there are few institutional incentives in academia in the U.S. to engage in advocacy or policy even though many people would like to play a greater role and want their research to have real-world impact. Few scholars are trained on how to communicate effectively with policymakers. Furthermore, getting research to policymakers in a timely fashion is difficult given the near glacial pace of most academic research.

Given this set of problems (and there are others), we may not be able to completely bridge the policy-research divide, but we certainly can and must do more to ensure that drug policy is better informed by science and scholarship.

We can start by:

  • Raising the profile of and publicizing good research so that it becomes more difficult to ignore.
  • Making research more accessible to policymakers, advocates and organizers by translating research into policy-relevant language.
  • Critically examining research to uncover and expose methodological flaws, conflicts of interest, and biases.
  • Providing scholars with tools to be more effective advocates and spokespeople.
  • Working with researchers to help them craft policy-relevant research questions and to draw out the policy implications of their findings.
  • Linking those doing on-the-ground organizing and advocacy to academics so they can work together to understand problems and build policy campaigns.
  • Creating forums to help “connect the dots” by bringing researchers from across disciplines together with those directly impacted by our drug policies and policymakers to help solve tough drug policy problems.

With these objectives in mind, the Drug Policy Alliance launched the Office of Academic Engagement (OAE) at the beginning of 2016. The OAE is built on the legacy of the Lindesmith Center, in operation from 1994-2000, which nurtured scholars, held a number of landmark conferences, and produced key reports and materials to inform drug policy and later merged into the Drug Policy Alliance. The OAE will support scholars in doing advocacy, convene experts from diverse disciplines to inform the field, and strengthen DPA’s use of research and scholarship in developing and advancing its policy positions.

Kristoff was right, we do need professors and researchers -- policymakers need them, activists need them, and advocacy organizations need them. We need them to help rationalize drug policy and bridge the gap between the evidence about what works and current practice. It’s well past time for a more sensible drug policy grounded in research and science. Scientists and other scholars have a critical role to play.

Julie Netherland, PhD, is the Director of the Office of Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy AllianceIf you’re an academic or researcher who wants to get more involved in drug policy reform, fill out this short survey or contact Julie Netherland at jnetherland@drugpolicy.org.

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