Federal Drug Science Specialist

Christine Sannerud, PhD
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

As a drug science specialist at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), I am the sole psychologist within a group of a dozen pharmacologists and chemist. My professional activities focus on evaluating the abuse potential and actual abuse of drugs and the subsequent extrapolation to drug scheduling (determining how stringently a drug should be controlled) and drug policy. For each drug project, I write a scientific review and an abuse liability assessment. I evaluate the scientific, medical, industrial and epidemiological data regarding medical use, diversion and trafficking of drugs. These documents also include the methods and procedures for illicit drug manufacture and control and the federal and international laws and regulations applicable to drug control. The results of my research, evaluations, and reports directly influence the recommendations for drug scheduling under the federal law and drug control policy within the United States.

In my current position, I function on many levels. In addition to writing scientific and technical reviews, I prepare technical information for the lay public and teach pharmacology classes to law enforcement professionals. I have presented DEA policy and data to a committee meeting of a state legislature, to foreign government officials, and to the lay public.

At the same time, I continue to perform many of my professional activities, such as writing and reviewing manuscripts, attending conventions, and serving as a liaison to Div. 28 (Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse) and to others in the scientific community.

It never occurred to me that I would work as a scientific advisor at a federal law enforcement agency. My training in physiological psychology and career aspirations were typical of my peers and more senior colleagues. My career goals included having my own animal laboratory, conducting drug abuse research and teaching graduate students and postdoctoral students in an academic environment. I was very involved in all aspects of the laboratory. Ironically, my hands-on-environment led to the reason I left the laboratory — I developed severe allergies to rodents.

I received my undergraduate training in biology and psychology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. It was my work as an undergraduate research assistant and several classes in physiological psychology that piqued my interest in drug research and convinced me to pursue graduate training in this area.

My graduate training in biopsychology (behavioral pharmacology) was completed in the Psychology Department at Wayne State University. As a student of a new faculty member, much of my time was spent setting up operant equipment, and writing computer programs.

While at Wayne State, my research efforts were focused on the development of tolerance to the behavioral effects of morphine in rats using operant methodologies. After graduate school, I was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship, followed by a faculty position in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School.

At Johns Hopkins, I studied the behavioral effects and abuse liability of sedative/anxiolytic and stimulant drugs in primates and rats, using drug self-administration, drug discrimination and behavioral observation techniques. A portion of my drug self-administration and dependence studies were focused on evaluating the abuse potential of novel compounds for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and several drug companies.

The opportunity for more professional independence came when I joined the Addiction Research Center at NIDA to design and construct a rhesus monkey self-administration facility. After establishing the laboratory, I evaluated the abuse liability of cocaine, amphetamines, nicotine and several pharmacotherapies.

I also pursued my interest in benzodiazepines by conducting behavioral tolerance and drug discrimination studies on rats. During this time, I increased my professional activities by publishing and reviewing manuscripts, presenting at scientific meetings and serving on committees for professional organizations.

After 15 years of research with animals, it was difficult for me to consider an alternative career. But when the position in the Drug and Chemical Evaluation Section at DEA became available, I decided to leave the laboratory. It is the ideal position for me with my background in behavioral pharmacology and expertise in abuse and dependence liability evaluations. It was also the perfect solution to my severe rodent allergies.

Currently, my activities are aimed at collecting data and updating our collection of drug abuse measures to determine their usefulness in predicting abuse and dependence potential. There is a great need for scientific data to formulate drug scheduling and drug policy.

It is uniquely fascinating position for me to be in-at the interface of cutting-edge scientific research and technical information and the implementation of federal drug abuse policies, which affect jurisprudence and society so directly.

(Originally published in the November/December 1996 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)