Blog Post

Making an Impact on Ending the War on Drugs: A Physician's Story

Dr. Malik Burnett

Why a physician and former surgery resident would decide to leave clinical medicine to join an organization like Drug Policy Alliance may seem like a head-scratcher.

Fortunately, the answer to this one is simple. In fact, it can be summed up in one word.


As a medical student, I was initially attracted to the field of surgery because it was one of the few medical specialties where your intervention in a person’s disease process produces immediate results. The process of an operation is relatively straightforward. You go inside, find the offending pathology, you remove it and for the most part, the person gets better. The ability to have an immediate impact was certainly one of the rewarding features of the job.

I look at my new role at DPA’s office of national affairs in the same way. But perhaps it may be helpful to outline a little of my journey up to this point.

During my residency training at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, I found myself internally conflicted as I treated patients with strong opioids to relieve their pain, while simultaneously seeing a growing epidemic of opioid dependence within the Worcester community.

In an attempt to resolve this cognitive dissonance, I began researching alternative medical therapies which could help relieve suffering without creating such strong physical dependence. During this time I was introduced to Michelle Alexander’sThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which fundamentally redefined for me the civil rights challenges of the 21st century. It created a burning desire to do more to end the injustices created by mass incarceration.

Serendipitously, an opportunity to have a meaningful impact on both of these fronts came together when the Massachusetts legislature passed An Act for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana in 2012. After the law’s passage, I played an active role using both my medical and business background to work with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to develop the regulations governing the medical cannabis marketplace.

During this time, the ACLU released The War on Marijuana in Black and White, which highlighted the tremendous racial disparities in incarceration rates for marijuana nationwide. In Washington, DC, the disparity is one of the highest in the nation with blacks being eight times more like to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Earlier this year, the DC City Council passed the one of the most comprehensive marijuana decriminalization bills nationwide. However, when one looks at the effect of decriminalization measures, incarceration rates don’t fall dramatically. New York exemplifies this phenomenon. To create real change, complete legalization of marijuana is required. An examination of Colorado’s incarceration rates bear this out

DPA is at the forefront of the change I want to make. And I’m excited and very hopeful about the new challenges in front of me as I settle into my role as a policy manager at DPA.

Legalizing marijuana in the nation’s capital will have a dramatic impact on the lives of people in communities of color within the district. It also has the real possibility of changing the politics marijuana policy nationwide.

Now that’s what I call making an immediate impact.

Malik Burnett is a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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