Research, policy, and law

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Craving, Chemistry, and Co-morbidity
Testing the substance of addiction research

It's time to realize that treating addicts is not a bad thing.
—Michael Kuhar, Chief of the Neuroscience Division at Yerkes Regional Primate Center

Science and medicine tend to see [the sociological and cultural factors in addiction] as "noise" and focus on the technical solutions.
—Peter Brown, Professor of Anthropology

Policy on addiction lags far behind the science, researchers say. “There’s a lot of contradiction between the science and the policy, especially compared to
other diseases,” says Claire Sterk, chair the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education in the Rollins School of Public Health. “Take cancer research, for example. You may or may not agree with a certain policy, but much scientific effort and time goes into shaping it. But with addiction,
preconceived notions tend to shape policy.

“People will immediately talk about a crack user as an ‘addict’ because we have a image of a crack user as someone who is poor, who drains social resources, who’s a criminal,” Sterk says. “But another type of cocaine user— a snorter—is treated differently. People tend to say ‘Well, it’s OK if you have a high-level job, a stressful job, if you snort once in a while.’”

Stereotypes about addiction drive legal policy, as well. In federal court, for example, sentencing guidelines for crack run a hundred times greater than for powder cocaine. This means that someone in possession of a hundred grams of powder cocaine gets the same sentence as someone with one gram of crack. To land ten years in jail, a defendant need only be caught with fifty grams of crack. A user of powder cocaine, though, must have five kilos of the drug to receive the same sentence. While this disparity results in softer penalties for the typically affluent and white users of powder cocaine, the trend is toward stiffer penalties across the spectrum of drug use.

Recently, the penalty for possessing Ecstasy, a drug popular with teenagers at dance clubs, rose sharply. “I can’t wait to be in the county where police start picking up these middle- or upper-class white kids and throwing them
in jail for ten or twenty years because they had a few Ecstasy pills,” says Sterk.