Prescription Opioid Use And Its Connection To The Criminal Justice System

By Paul Gaita 07/16/18

A new study examined the link between people with a history of prescription opioid use and their involvement with the criminal justice system. 

close-up of man taking pills

Individuals with a history of opioid use are up to 13 times more likely to be involved in some manner with law enforcement or justice system officials, including arrest, parole or probation.

Those are the conclusions suggested by a new study that explored what NPR described as the "intersection of the criminal justice system and the ongoing opioid epidemic."

Data from more than 78,000 respondents to a national survey on drug use found that prescription opioid users were more likely to have some involvement with the criminal justice system than those with no history of opioid use; opioid users were also more likely to suffer from chronic health issues and have higher susceptibility to overdose upon release from the prison system.

The study authors also suggested that greater access to alternatives to incarceration or treatment within the prison system could have a significant impact on lowering these rates.

The study, conducted by researchers from New York University, the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Kaiser Permanente's Institute for Health Research, among other institutions, examined information culled by the National Survey on Drug and Use and Health from 78,976 respondents—all U.S. residents between the ages of 18 and 64—including substance use, socioeconomic status and health.

Involvement with the criminal justice system was defined by three criteria: whether the respondent had been recently arrested, released on parole or placed on probation.

The data suggested that only 3% of the general population with no history of opioid use—prescription or other forms, like heroin—fell into those three categories.

However, 20% of respondents who said that they had a dependency on prescription opioids and 40% of those who reported using heroin had some level of involvement with the criminal justice system.

The data also revealed that individuals reporting opioid use or dependency were more likely to have some form of health issue, whether a mental illness or chronic health conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Using this information, the researchers opined that the criminal justice system needed greater involvement in providing treatment for individuals with opioid dependency.

They noted that many prison systems do not offer medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which has been regarded as the most effective means of treating opioid issues by several studies.

Individuals in the criminal justice system who do not receive some form of treatment are more likely to experience a lower tolerance to opioids and in turn, a greater chance of overdose upon release, according to 2012 research conducted with former inmates.

Study lead author Tyler Winkelman, a clinician-investigator at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, also suggested that placing individuals in treatment facilities instead of jails may prove more effective in breaking the cycle of dependency and incarceration. "We need a response that will ideally prevent people from entering the criminal justice system," he noted.

The NPR coverage cited a 2016 study, which reviewed rates of death by overdose among inmates exiting the Rhode Island Department of Corrections after it began a medication-assisted treatment program for its prison population. The study suggested that overdose deaths dropped by nearly 61% among that demographic—an "unheard of" drop in mortality rates, according to study author Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University.

"At this point of the epidemic, we can't afford to not put people on treatment," he added.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.