Times are changing. As cannabis reform evolves, so does drug policy. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), joined the host of Psychoactive podcast, Ethan Nadelmann, to discuss her perspectives on a range of topics related to drug use, drug criminalization, reform, research, and how cannabis legalization has reportedly not led to higher rates of cannabis consumption among youth.
The last topic was a major focus of the interview, according to Marijuana Moment, who had a chance to email interview Nadelmann about his interview with Volkow. Apparently, he was “quite surprised” that Volkow even wanted to join him on the show, considering her position as a top federal drug official and his as a longtime legalization activist. “I’m not sure why she did but I’m guessing it’s a reflection of the ways in which the drug policy debate has evolved that she saw this as a positive opportunity,” he said. Speaking of evolving views on drug policy, Volkow admitted on the show that “she was ‘expecting the use of marijuana among adolescents would go up’ when states moved to legalize cannabis, but admitted that ‘overall, it hasn’t,’” wrote Marijuana Moment.
Next came the complicated subject of how existing (and, in many opinions, harmful) drug policies greatly restrict beneficial drug research. “Understanding what policies basically protect from negative effects and may actually lead to better outcomes is crucial,” Volkow said on the podcast. “And we’re funding it.” But she’s also previously acknowledged the cumbersome barriers that prevent researchers from even wanting to enter the field, such as how federal scientists have to rely on a cannabis supply from only one authorized grow operation at the University of Mississippi. Plus, the quality of the cannabis from that facility has apparently been “roundly criticized.” Volkow noted during the interview that the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) manufacturer expansion plans are encouraging, though.
Once the DEA was brought up, Nadelmann pressed the NIDA director for her thoughts on the agency being in charge of the nation’s drug policies rather than, say, a health-focused agency. As the head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Volkow diplomatically said that she accepts how the system is currently organized but made sure to vocalize her continued work and writing on how the existing policies are harmful in a range of ways for widely varying communities and also contribute to the inhibition of furthering research. “From day one, I’ve been against criminalization of people because they have a problem with substance use disorders. I’ve been very, very vocal,” she said to Nadelmann, alluding to her recent slew of op-eds on the topic. “One of the reasons why I took this position was because, I say, we can develop the science in such a way that policy changes,” she continued.
In one of Volkow’s op-eds, which we covered earlier this summer, she wrote, “Punitive policies around drugs mark people who use them as criminals, and so contribute to the overwhelming stigma against people contending with an often debilitating and sometimes fatal disorder — and even against the medical treatments that can effectively address it.” On the podcast, she furthered her conversation on this topic by saying “I’ve also been openly active in criticizing the policy of incarcerating for crack versus cocaine, which made absolutely no sense,” touching on the racial disparities in drug policies and criminalization that have permeated the U.S. for decades.
When Nadelmann asked Volkow about whether or not NIDA can be expected to fund psilocybin and other psychedelic research on “treatment of addiction or even or pain,” she replied that seeing research into ketamine as a treatment for treatment-resistant depression has been an “eye opener” for her. “We need to learn from what the evidence is showing us,” she said. “If we can use ketamine for the treatment of severe depression in a way that is safe, this is an example of really that we can use drugs that we thought were dangerous and use them in ways that are therapeutic.” Times are changing, hopefully for the better, and it’s a fascinatingly optimistic feeling to see someone in Volkow’s position being so vocal about her changing views and actively working to change drug policies for the better.