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August 26, 2021 57 min

Dr. Nora Volkow has headed the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which funds a majority of the world’s research in the area, since the early years of George W. Bush’s administration. I was pleasantly surprised when she agreed to join me for an episode of PSYCHOACTIVE since I’ve been highly critical of the agency’s priorities and its failure to fund important domains of research for what appear to be political reasons.

I pressed Dr. Volkow on a host of questions I’d long wanted to ask her: Why does NIDA devote relatively little funding to the sorts of ethnographic research that might provide important insights into the overdose epidemic? Or to researching the health effects and consequences of mass arrests and incarceration for drug law violations? Or to studying the medical benefits of marijuana and psychedelics? Or to better understanding “controlled drug use,” i.e., the ways in which people use all sorts of drugs without their drug use becoming problematic? Or to examining the potential of supervised injection facilities, heroin-assisted drug treatment and other innovative harm reduction interventions that have proven successful abroad?

I also wanted to know how she’s managed the political challenges of working under four different administrations as well as those presented by members of Congress who favor highly punitive approaches to illicit drug use. We discussed her frustrations with current laws that constrain what NIDA can do and how she tries to maintain the integrity of an agency that claims the scientific high ground while operating in a highly politicized context.

I’m fairly sure that Dr. Volkow had never before been pressed on these issues in a public interview. I found her responses frustrating but was grateful for her willingness to have this conversation.

Listen to this episode and let me know what you think. Our number is 1-833-779-2460. Our email is Or tweet at me, @ethannadelmann.

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