Leading experts in neuroscience, law and ethics will gather on April 10 in Phoenix to examine emerging research in alcohol and drug dependence, new treatments for addictive disorders and the response of the courts to individuals whose crimes are addiction-related.
"Hooked: Legal and Ethical Implications of Recent Advances in Alcohol and Drug Addiction Research" will be held from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse in downtown Phoenix. The event is co-sponsored by the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, the College's Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology and the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at ASU.
Intended for judges, attorneys, scientists, mental health and addiction specialists, scholars and educators, the free conference is the third in a series of biennial programs organized by the Center on subjects relating to the brain and the law. Free Continuing Legal Education credits will be available for participating attorneys.
"Substance abuse is a major issue that affects society and the criminal justice system," said law professor Gary Marchant, the Center's Executive Director and the Lincoln Professor of Emerging Technologies, Law & Ethics at ASU. "There have been some major scientific break-throughs in understanding both the genetics and neurology of addictions in the last few years.
"However, these data will create profound legal and ethical issues for judges, lawyers and society," Marchant said. "The purpose of this conference is to bring together some of the top people in the country in science, policy, law and ethics from a variety of different perspectives and viewpoints to discuss and debate what should be done with this data."
More than 350 people have pre-registered for the conference, and registration has been closed because the room already is filled to over-capacity, underlining the importance of and interest in the subject matter.
"Drug and alcohol addiction have plagued this country for decades, as we have witnessed it daily in our courts," said U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver, who will deliver the conference's opening remarks. "This program offers a rare opportunity to learn of the enormous scientific break-throughs in treatment, accompanied by the legal implications of these advances."
Among the speakers is Charles P. O'Brien, professor and vice chair of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, who will deliver a talk, "New Treatments for Addictive Disorders Based on Recent Research." Dr. O'Brien is chief of psychiatry and director of the university's Center for Studies of Addiction, and his research focuses on the mechanisms of addiction and possible pharmacological treatment of related disorders.
Dr. O'Brien recently conducted a study on treating drug offenders, particularly those on probation or parole, with the drug, Naltrexone, an FDA-approved drug for alcoholism treatment that soon may be approved to help heroin and other addicts. The drug blocks in the brain the euphoria experienced from heroin and other opiates. It can be effective in helping drug offenders avoid relapse, according to his article, "The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Treatment of Parolees: Ethical Considerations in Using Pharmacology to Prevent Addiction Relapse," published by The Dana Foundation.
"We believe that the most efficient and effective way to use this medication would be to initiate the treatment prior to release from prison for those with a history of opioid addiction," wrote Dr. O'Brien, who noted that, of the more than 2.1 million people currently incarcerated in the United States, a majority because of drug-related crimes. "In pilot studies, most of those volunteering for treatment after release had already relapsed and had to be detoxified before starting Naltrexone."
Criminal-justice policymakers could use any of three approaches - voluntary, leveraged or no-choice - in using Naltrexone for relapse prevention, he wrote. Each raises ethical and legal concerns, however, notably the latter two. In the leveraged choice, for example, probation with drug treatment might be offered to some offenders, rather than prison time, an option that some believe is coercive, Dr. O'Brien said.
"The truth is coercion works, if you can get people to stay in treatment longer," he said. "Simply offering non-violent offenders who have been found guilty of the option of prison or treatment would be both practical and humane."
Other speakers at the conference will offer insight into the neuroscience of addiction, genetic and environmental contributors to alcohol and drug dependence, addiction and criminal responsibility, addiction as a brain disease, and the impact of substance abuse on emotions, cognition and behaviors.
Marchant will lecture on "Addiction Science in the Courtroom: How Have Courts Responded?" In recent years, he noted, scientists have made substantial progress in understanding, diagnosing, predicting, treating and monitoring drug and alcohol addiction, especially pertaining to genetic and neuroscience evidence, which would be helpful to the courts. Examples and questions to consider include:
*Neuroimaging data now can detect in the brains of drugs and alcohol addicts abnormalities that affect their decision making and inhibitory control, which may result in loss of control and compulsive drug-seeking. Should such findings in individual defendants affect their legal culpability or sentencing?
*Genetic studies are finding that some people are genetically predisposed to addiction, often leading to criminal behavior. Should those findings affect criminal culpability, sentencing or rehabilitation?
*New drugs and vaccines may provide unprecedented effectiveness in treating alcohol or illicit drug addiction. How should their availability affect sentencing, and should courts require such treatments?
For more information about the conference, go to www.law.asu.edu/brainaddiction or call Andrew Askland at (480) 965-2465.