IU McKinney School of Law students recently dug in to how law and policy play a role in the national opioid epidemic and created their own legislative solutions to the problem.
Taught by McKinney Professors Aila Hoss and Nicolas Terry, who are also part of IU’s Responding to the Addictions Crisis Grand Challenge initiative, the innovative course, “Opioids Policy and Legislative Drafting,” was designed to introduce basic principles and best practices for researching and proposing policy and legislation.
Students were required to choose a research area of law and/or policy relating to the opioids epidemic in Indiana, including public health laws, the relationship between harm reduction and criminalization, stigma-reducing strategies and the role of the healthcare system. Working from their research each student then created a policy brief that leveraged their evidence-based research to create a policy initiative and crafted specific legislative or policy language.
The students produced a large number of proposals, including decriminalization around syringe possession, changing the scope of practice laws to increase the professional workforce, extending services for babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome and their mothers, providing additional pre-trial diversion programs in the Department of Child Services, increasing the use of Medication Assisted Treatment in jails and prisons and accelerating expungement of certain drug-related crimes.
IU McKinney dual-degree student Emily Beukema, who will graduate in 2020 with a Master of Public Health and J.D. degrees, signed up for the course because of her interest in the opioid crisis. She wrote a policy brief on decriminalizing syringes in Indiana, especially relating to syringe service programs.
"The opioid overdose crisis touches so many different areas of law. It's become apparent it should be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue," she said. "Research shows criminalizing the possession of syringes negatively affects the success of these programs and all positive resources they can provide for individuals with substance use disorder."
For Alex Zimmerman, the IU McKinney course complimented professional experiences as a legal intern and legislative assistant for the Indiana State Senate.
"I was interested in this topic as the opioid epidemic is constantly in the news and the General Assembly, in the last few sessions alone, has introduced a great number of bills to combat this epidemic," he said. "I wanted to gain a better understanding of the topic outside of the Statehouse."
His proposal, to provide criminal immunity to those in possession of a syringe obtained from a syringe exchange program, aims at bolstering the state's syringe exchange program by eliminating program participants' fear that they would be arrested for possessing a lawfully obtained syringe.
"Through the project, I was able to apply knowledge learned about the opioid epidemic in the course, including policies that can be implemented to try and curb the epidemic," Zimmerman said. “I was able to truly see the 'domino effect' that can happen to Indiana law when you attempt to amend just one section of Indiana Code."
In addition to course work, students also heard from a number of guest speakers who are experts in the field including Dr. Tracy Gunter, professor clinical psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine who explained the science of addictions; Madison Weintraut, program manager of Marion County’s Safe Syringe Access and Support program discussed harm reduction strategies, and Cora Steinmetz, program director at IU Health explained the Indiana legislative process.
Professors Hoss and Terry are actively engaged in researching law and policy issues relevant to the Addictions Grand Challenge. Alone or in collaboration with other Grand Challenge researchers they have written reports on "Legal and Policy Best Practices in Response to the Substance Abuse Crisis," "Innovations in Opioid Law and Policy Interventions" and "Opioid Use Disorder and Overdose-Related Legislation in the 2019 Indiana Legislative Session," all of which are available online.