Nora Volkow: Two paths to the future pg. 9
As a leader, Volkow is more revolutionary than bureaucrat. Her agenda is diverse and far-ranging, but its central theme is making connections—uniting physicians and pharmaceutical companies, drug courts and community groups to improve the treatment and prevention of addiction.
Among her top priorities: understanding the interactions between drug abuse, mental illness and AIDS.
Experimenting with drugs often begins during the novelty-seeking, peer pressured years of adolescence, and is a major contributor to the continued rise in HIV/AIDS in the United States. Drug use can lower resistance to risky behaviors like unprotected sex or sharing needles.
Drug abuse complicates treatment of other diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, yet addiction among patients with “co-morbid” conditions often is ignored, Volkow asserts. Limited access to drug treatment also contributes to the disproportional impact of AIDS and incarceration on minority groups.
African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet account for half of the nation’s HIV infections and more than 40 percent of jail and prison inmates. “These numbers,” she says, “are unacceptably high, embarrassingly high.”
Volkow’s blunt approach has been a “breath of fresh air” to retired Judge Karen Freeman-Wilson, former CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. According to association statistics, treatment of drug-addicted criminal offenders can reduce by at least half the rate of recidivism—the relapse to criminal behavior.
“She has been a tremendous help to us to really educate people on the science of addiction… but more importantly, the science of treatment,” explains Freeman-Wilson, a former Indiana attorney general who established that state’s first drug court in 1996.
While many find Volkow’s frank speech refreshing, former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation President and CEO Steven A. Schroeder, M.D., wishes she and others in government would advocate more forcefully for treatment programs and policies—such as methadone and smoking cessation programs—that are already known to work.