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Stanford researchers say U.S. policies on drugs and addiction could use a dose of neuroscience

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Tens of thousands of Americans die from drug overdoses every year — around 50,000 in 2015 — and the number has been steadily climbing for at least the last decade and a half, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Yet a team of Stanford neuroscientists and legal scholars argues that the nation’s drug policies are at times exactly the opposite from what science-based policies would look like.

Stanford Health Policy affiliate Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, and colleagues argue in the journal Science that basing public policy on neuroscience rather than on a desire to punish addicts would improve lives, including those of the victims of drug-related crimes.

“We have an opioid epidemic that looks like it’s going to be deadlier than AIDS, but the criminal justice system handles drug addiction in almost exactly opposite of what neuroscience and other behavioral sciences would suggest,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and one of the leaders of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute’s Neurochoice Big Idea Initiative.

A central problem, the authors argue, is that drug use warps the brain’s decision-making mechanisms, so that what matters most to a person dealing with addiction is the here and now, not the possibility of a trip up the river a few months or years from today.

“We have relied heavily on the length of a prison term as our primary lever for trying to influence drug use and drug-related crime,” said Robert MacCoun, a professor of law and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “But such sanction enhancements are psychologically remote and premised on an unrealistic model of rational planning with a long time horizon, which just isn’t consistent with how drug users behave.”

What might work better, Humphreys said, is smaller, more immediate incentives and punishments – perhaps a meal voucher in exchange for passing a drug test, along with daily monitoring.

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