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Neuroscience and Law Experts Discuss Cannabis and Public Policy at Harvard Law School Panel

The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, housed Harvard Law School, was founded in 2005.
The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, housed Harvard Law School, was founded in 2005. By Julian J. Giordano
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen and Srija Vem, Contributing Writers

Experts in neuroscience and law discussed the legalization of cannabis and highlighted its implications for public policy at a virtual panel hosted by Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics on Wednesday.

The event, jointly hosted with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Law, Brain and Behavior, featured neuroscientist Yasmin Hurd and was moderated by forensic psychologist and attorney Stephanie Tabashneck. Petrie-Flom Center Executive Director Carmel D. Shachar introduced the panel.

Hurd began by describing the science of cannabis and cannabidiol, speaking on the potential adverse effects of marijuana use by young people, whose brains have not fully developed. She also discussed the future of treating substance use disorders, advocating for a shift away from the criminal justice system.

In an interview after the event, Shachar criticized the reliance on the criminal system to regulate marijuana in the United States, saying it “was too one size fits all” and “too harsh on certain people.”

“It really burdened communities of color in ways I think were unjust and inequitable,” she said.

Shachar added that in “an era of more individual choice around marijuana,” it is important for people to rely on experts to understand how the drug will affect their body.

“You want to be a really good custodian of your brain,” she said. “You want to be a friend to your brain.”

Tabashneck said in an interview after the event that neuroscience can be a useful tool to humanize those who practice substance use. She noted displaying brain scans has helped her to change the perception of substance use disorders in the courtroom by underscoring their validity as medically-based illnesses.

“It seemed to shift the way that lawyers and judges were understanding addiction and led to more compassion and empathy,” Tabashneck said. “So I see neuroscience as a vehicle for understanding.”

Tabashneck added that neuroscience provides a sense of hope for those facing or trying to treat substance use disorders.

“I also really like neuroscience because in this field, in particular, I think there’s a lot of hope,” she said.

“We know that for people who have substance use disorders 一 that the brain can heal over time,” Tabashneck added. “And I think that message is really important: those people who have an addiction get better.”

Tabashneck said she hopes to help reduce stigma around addiction and stop “unnecessary cruel” attitudes towards those struggling with substance use disorders.

“What we know from the research is we get better outcomes when we treat people with substance use disorders with respect and dignity,” she said.

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