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American Society of Addiciton Medicine
Mar 29, 2024 Reporting from Rockville, MD
ASAM Member Advocates for Patient Access to Ƶ Care
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Mar 29, 2024
Dr. Burnett serves as medical director of both REACH Health Services and the Maryland Department of Health’s Center of Harm Reduction Services (CHRS). His approach to fighting addiction doesn’t end with addiction medicine. He’s also worked as an entrepreneur and a US drug policy expert to help bring about systemic change.

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American Society of Addictin Medicine

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ASAM Member Advocates for Patient Access to Ƶ Care

Malik Burnett, MD, MBA, MPH, FASAM

Years ago, when Malik Burnett, MD, MBA, MPH, FASAM, was in general surgery residency, he witnessed the many ways addiction had devastated the lives of his patients. These experiences inspired him to combat the effects of addiction on individuals and communities.

Today, Dr. Burnett serves as medical director of both REACH Health Services and the Maryland Department of Health’s Center of Harm Reduction Services (CHRS). His approach to fighting addiction doesn’t end with addiction medicine. He’s also worked as an entrepreneur and a US drug policy expert to help bring about systemic change.

Ultimately, Dr. Burnett wants to see our country’s drug policy framework move from  a criminal justice-oriented approach to one centered around public health. He said he thinks it is possible to achieve this as more people become aware of the alarming number of overdose deaths and purely addiction-related incarcerations.

“I think most people, including elected officials and the general public, view our current drug policy as ineffective,” said Dr. Burnett, who also works as Assistant Professor in Ƶ Medicine at the University of Maryland Midtown Campus and as a consultant for the Maryland Ƶ Consultation Service.

 

Lobbying For Change

In 2012, when Massachusetts passed legislation to legalize medical cannabis, Dr. Burnett saw an opportunity to effect change as a lobbyist at the Drug Policy Alliance. He went to Capitol Hill and led the campaign to legalize cannabis in Washington, DC, in addition to testifying in support of cannabis policy reform in numerous states and at the federal level.

Dr. Burnett said he felt compelled to influence US drug policy because he knew he could not rely on elected officials alone to make lasting, effective change.

“Elected officials and lawmakers are individuals with expertise in creating legislation and regulation, but that does not necessarily translate to expertise on how those legislations and regulatory standards impact the people on the ground,” he said. “As providers, and physicians particularly, we have an understanding of what the on-the-ground impact of regulation and legislation is, and beyond caring for patients, physicians are teachers, and we have a responsibility to inform elected officials about what is working and what is not working.”

Around this time, Dr. Burnett started his preventive medicine residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital, seeing the field as a way to combine his passion for public health, public policy, and medicine. After completing his residency, he decided to take on the entrepreneurial pursuit of developing a cannabis company in addition to continuing in medicine.

“I was motivated by a desire to increase the diversity of ownership in the cannabis industry, considering the historically biased impact of enforcement of cannabis prohibition on communities of color,” he said. “It just made sense that if states were going to create a regulatory framework to support this activity, leadership within those businesses should reflect the communities most harmed by the war on drugs.”

In 2017, the American Board of Preventive Medicine adopted its addiction medicine subspecialty, allowing physicians in preventive medicine to become addiction medicine specialists.

Over time, the reports of increasing numbers of people dying from opioid overdoses moved Dr. Burnett to become an addiction medicine specialist. He pursued this pathway as the Coronavirus pandemic ramped up and forced people inside.

“It seemed like the perfect time to do a fellowship in addiction medicine. With the limits on social activities, the COVID-19 pandemic created a great opportunity to learn about taking care of patients with substance use disorders,” he said.

As he completed his addiction medicine fellowship at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Dr. Burnett learned about ASAM’s local chapter. He joined the Maryland-DC Society of Ƶ Medicine and served on its Public Policy Committee. He joined ASAM in 2021 after he testified before the US Senate on cannabis policy reform for the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act.

Around this time, he joined and soon became vice chair of the Public Policy Committee. He also joined the Legislative Advocacy Committee.

“I jumped into the deep end,” Dr. Burnett said. “There's no other way to get things done than to just start doing them, right? You can't wait.”

 

The Value of ASAM Membership

Today, Dr. Burnett is working to expand access to care, specifically related to harm reduction services.

“My goal is to eliminate stigma throughout the treatment system in the state of Maryland,” he said. “Meaning, working to ensure that individuals who use drugs and, the medications we use to treat substance use disorder aren’t stigmatized, and that policies, processes, and procedures are adjusted, such that it is easier for individuals to access care for not only their substance use disorders, but their medical conditions as well.”

Dr. Burnett through his role at CHRS, develops programs to increase drug checking, raising awareness of novel psychoactive substances within the drug supply, expands syringe service program access, telemedicine MOUD, overdose education and naloxone distribution through Maryland. He advocates for policy change around the establishment of overdose prevention sites and the decriminalization of paraphernalia and of drugs more generally.

For addiction medicine specialists who want to become involved at the policy level, Dr. Burnett suggests the first step is to inform yourself about what is happening at the local, state, and federal level by reviewing the legislative websites of governing bodies in your jurisdictions. Then find out where you can add value. He also recommends finding partners you can work with to encourage the change you want to see. ASAM, he said, is a great vehicle for this.

“I think if you want to maintain your understanding of the most contemporary practices within the field of addiction, you have to be involved in ASAM,” he said.

Dr. Burnett continues to treat addiction and fight for change at the national level, finding many rewards along the way.  

“It’s most rewarding to see individuals, who are otherwise at what they would describe as their wit’s end, through their own diligence and hard work, regain all the things that they thought they had lost forever,” he said. “Then at the broader policy level, it’s being able to see concepts evolve from an idea to execution on the ground. It’s especially rewarding to see lots of people benefit from the implementation of ideas that were once thought to be controversial, if not outright crazy.”

As Dr. Burnett continues his work, he said his ASAM membership is more vital than ever.

“My membership provides me with connections and relationships to individuals who are of similar mind and will allow me -- because I’m very much at the beginning of my career -- to continue to be able to effectuate change at the local, state, and federal level. There’s still a lot more work that needs to be done.”

He encourages other ASAM members to get involved to help further the field of addiction medicine by working for change in areas that mean something to them personally.

“The organization is only as strong as the membership involvement,” he added. “As a dues-paying member, why not work to ensure that your contributions lead to the change that you want to see? Getting involved is a way to have your voice heard by the organization and helps drive system transformation.”