Drug addiction, science and policy: introducing Jules Netherland

The Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research will host their 4th Annual Congress online from 21-23 April 2021. The Polyphony is delighted to publish interviews with all four keynote speakers in the build-up to the Congress. This week Congress organiser Ruben Verwaal talks to Jules Netherland (Drugs Policy Alliance, New York).

Ruben Verwaal writes:

Julie (“Jules”) Netherland is a leading expert in the critical study of drugs, medicine, science and addiction. She has published over a dozen peer-reviewed journal articles and edited Critical Perspectives on Addiction (Emerald Press, 2012).

The organising committee of NNMHR Congress 2021 is very excited to have Jules as keynote speaker, not only because of her excellent scholarship on addiction, but because she is situated at the intersection of social science and policy. Doing science is not enough for her – it needs to be implemented as well. Netherland is deeply interested in how research, scholars, and the academy can shape policy responses to complex social problems. Jules’s hands-on experience working in policy offers her unique vantage point from which to theorize about how policy is created and the role policy plays in shaping both structure and individual actions.

Jules was happy to participate in a short interview, in which she tells about her studies, work, and passion to dismantle unjust social structures.

Where did you study and how has this shaped you?

My formal study included a degree in religion from Bryn Mawr College, a masters of social work from Boston University, and a PhD in medical sociology from the City University of New York. Bryn Mawr, in particular, helped me hone a political analysis and sensibility that has been invaluable, and my training in sociology taught me important critical thinking skills. But I would say that most of my “study” has been on the job, first through a decade of doing public health research and then spending the last ten years working in public policy. I have been blessed with mentors and colleagues who have helped me appreciated all kinds of expertise and knowledge. I especially value what I have learned from people directly impacted by the war on drugs, including the importance of empathy, humility, kindness, and resilience.

Fun fact: I recently used that religion degree during a stint as a lay preacher in a progressive queer church [1].

Why did you decide to specialise in addiction?

The thread that runs through my entire career is a deep interest in understanding and addressing the conditions that allow us, as a society, to deem some people as expendable, marginal, or not fully human. I started my career working on queer rights and HIV and quickly saw the ways in which people who use drugs, especially injection drug users living with HIV, were demonized. I wanted, then and now, to untangle and resist the forces that assert in word and deed that people who use illicit drugs are somehow unworthy of our love, care, and respect. Of course, it turns out that only some drug users are viewed this way, and U.S. drug policies are but a thin veil for structural racism. Working in drug policy also allows me to work towards dismantling racist systems, something about which I care deeply.

I have also always been drawn to fields, like drug policy, where ideology, rather than reason and research, drive policy.

How do you bridge academia and policy?

I’m little obsessed with trying to bridge this divide. I actually get paid to address this problem by providing academics with the tools and support they need to more effectively impact policy. The Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) Department of Research & Academic Engagement works one-on-one with academics, offers webinars and trainings, and does whatever it can to encourage academics to engage more deeply in the drug policy reform movement. I also get to work directly with advocates at DPA and in the broader reform movement on how to use research in their advocacy work.

On a personal level, I really love doing research, but I felt like my research wasn’t making a difference. I was asked to take on a policy job and decided to try it. It turns out policy work (at least the kind of direct lobbying I was doing) is exhilarating and challenging, but it wasn’t the best fit for someone like me who bristles at some of realities of political work. I’m happiest in my current role trying to bridge the research-policy divide.

I still love research and do it more or less as a hobby in my off hours. My current research – looking at the role of whiteness and white supremacy in our response to the opioid epidemic – allows me to draw on both my academic training and my policy work.

What’s your most memorable moment in your career?

Early in my career, I was publicly pilloried by a radical right group for creating and piloting a sexuality education and HIV prevention curriculum for LGBTQI teens.

Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self?

Pace yourself.

What three emotions would best describe how you feel about presenting at the NNMHR 2021 Congress?

Excited, happy, and enthusiastic!

What book or article in our field do you think is really a must-read?

It’s really hard to pick just one, but I would recommend David Herzberg’s new book, White Market Drugs [2], and Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body [3].

What will your keynote be about?

A lot of work has been done on how anti-Black racism drives U.S. drug policy, but relatively little work has been done on the role whiteness plays in the war on drugs. My keynote, based on research done with Helena Hansen and David Herzberg, is about how technologies of whiteness are operating within the current opioid crisis in the U.S. It will explore the ways in which the opioid crisis came to be perceived as white and what that perception means terms of our policy responses.


For more information about Jules Netherland’s keynote and the Northern Network for Medical Humanities 4th Annual Congress 2021, please visit https://nnmhr2021.org.


[1] Jules gives sermons as a deacon and a lay preacher at the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. The sermons are recorded and can accessed here: http://www.juliecnetherland.com/sermons.html

[2] Herzberg, David Lowell. White Market Drugs: Big Pharma and the Hidden History of Addiction in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020.

[3] Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books, 2017.

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