On April 22, 2017, dozens of drug policy researchers and their allies will leave their colleges and universities to gather on the streets of D.C. for the National March for Science. A busload of scholars from New York City will meet up with those from Washington D.C. and surrounding areas with the simple message that drug policy should be based on facts, not fear. Researchers from around the country will join other drug policy contingents in satellite marches taking place in other cities. There are more than 500 communities hosting satellite marches.
Galvanized by the Trump Administration’s espousal of “alternative facts” and its hostility towards evidence-based policy and science, scientists from across the country are picking up protest signs. The National March for Science is expected to draw tens of thousands of people in support of science.
“I’m delighted that drug researchers are coming together at the National Science March to call for evidence-based drug policies in the U.S. I’ve been a scholar-activist for years because I understand just how damaging it is when we base our drug policies on assumptions and myths instead of rigorous scientific evidence. Research can direct us to the true root of society’s problems, which has more to do with poverty, lack of jobs, and our drug policies, than with drugs themselves. It’s time we all stood up and demand our lawmakers base our drug policies on facts, not on fear and misinformation,” said Carl Hart, PhD, Chair of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.
Sheila Vakharia, PhD, Assistant Professor, at Long Island University commented: “We are at a crucial point in the US where we can either choose to fund and expand empirically-proven treatments for people living with substance use disorders, or we can continue to promote obsolete treatment approaches grounded in idealistic moralism. As someone committed to improving the drug treatment industry, I am marching to promote drug treatment that is compassionate, pragmatic, effective, and grounded in harm reduction.”
For decades, drug policies in the U.S. have been driven by ideology, stigma, racism, and politics with too little reliance on research about what is effective. With the election of Donald Trump and his Administration’s disavowal of science and facts, drug researchers are concerned that the divide between evidence and policy will only grow deeper.
Some examples of policy driven by fear and ideology instead of facts include:
- Placing marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, purporting that it is unsafe and has no medical use, despite dozens of studies demonstrating its relative safety and its benefits as a medicine for a host of ailments.
- Maintaining a sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine of 18 to 1 despite the fact that the two drugs are merely different forms of the same substance.
- Prohibiting or failing to fund harm reduction services proven to reduce overdose and blood-born disease transmission, such as syringe exchange programs, supervised injection facilities, and heroin-assisted treatment.
Trump’s pro-police and “law and order” rhetoric and racially coded language about crime in urban areas suggest he’s unlikely to support drug decriminalization or alternatives to incarceration – approaches also supported by research. Instead, he’s promised a national stop and frisk program that will likely increase racially biased policing and drug arrests.
“So many lives lost, including my dad and my brother, to death and excessive incarceration, because politicians ignored scientific evidence for more than 45 years waging the failed war on drugs. How many more?” asks Jasmine Tyler of the Open Society Foundation. “I’m joining the Science March because no family should have to suffer because of ignorant politicians, and drug policy must be grounded in science to address the crises we’re facing.”
Researchers are also concerned by his proposed cuts of $1.2 billion to the National Institutes of Health, which funds the vast majority of the research on drugs and drug policy in the country. As the nation grapples with how to respond to a rise on opioid overdose deaths, researchers are calling for approaches proven effective by science, such as harm reduction and treatment, and for more – not less - research into how to save lives. In addition, Trump’s proposal to cut the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Block grants, if successful, will impede access to substance use treatment in those areas a hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.
“As a physician and researcher, I am so pleased to march with my colleagues for science. Science is and should remain the cornerstone that guides medical treatment and health care policies. This is particularly important for treatment and policies that focus on substance use, which have historically not been based on science,” Chinazo Cunningham, MD, Associate Chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine and Professor of Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center.
“We felt it was important to march because evidence-based policy is under attack, and the gains we’ve made to ground drug policy in the research about what works are threatened. Evidence-based drug policy can save lives. We cannot afford to return to the failed drug war tactics of the past,” said Jules Netherland, PhD, director of the Office of Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance.