Study: police opioid seizures could cost lives, not save them

By: - June 8, 2023 11:37 am
Fentanyl opiate in plastic bag

A new study reports that police seizures targeting opiates like the fentanyl shown here may actually lead to more overdoses. Photo: Getty Images

A new study found that when law enforcement agencies seize illicit opioids, fatal overdoses in the vicinity of the seizure increase over the next three weeks.

“This casts doubt on the core assumption of state and federal drug policy and suggests that police officers intending to protect the public’s health and safety may be inadvertently exacerbating harms such as fatal overdose,” the study’s authors wrote.

The report does not say that drug raids caused the uptick in overdoses, but one of the study’s authors laid out a potential reasoning in a tweet: a person addicted to drugs does not simply stop using because police disrupt their supply. Instead, they go into withdrawal. They get more and more desperate, more willing to acquire drugs from dealers they don’t know. By the time they get new drugs, their tolerance likely decreased, putting them at risk of an overdose.

“Unknown tolerance, unknown potency, reduced risk aversion, and no margin for error in safely dosing fentanyl can all lead to increased fatal overdose observed in our study,” Brandon del Pozo, an assistant professor of health services, policy and practice and an assistant professor of research at Brown University, wrote on Twitter.

Almost 1 million people have died from an overdose across the U.S. in the past 20 years. The report proposes forming public safety partnerships where organizations can step in and assist people who use drugs after police perform a seizure; such groups could provide overdose prevention services, outreach and refer people to care.

“As drug markets become less predictable and morbidity and mortality among people who use drugs increases, it is critical that communities not only create low barrier access to evidence-based treatment but also implement harm reduction strategies that directly address supply-side drivers of accidental overdose,” the report reads. “Naloxone distribution, drug-checking, and overdose prevention sites are strategies first developed and implemented by people who use drugs that can be facilitated or enhanced by law enforcement cooperation through exceptions or ‘carve-outs’ of drug criminalization to protect public health.”

The research, published Wednesday in the American Journal of Public Health, is based on two years of data — about 1,800 incidents — collected in Indianapolis. Here is a link to a PDF of the study.

Del Pozo said the study was being replicated, but said the effect could be specific to fentanyl.

The results come as states across the nation, including North Carolina, grapple with how to respond to an overdose epidemic driven by fentanyl. North Carolina legislators have proposed increasing punishments for trafficking certain opioids and dealing such drugs that result in a person’s death.

Such policies have support among state lawmakers, but a 2019 report from the Drug Policy Alliance argues that harsh prison sentences does not reduce drug use or the availability of drugs, and doesn’t keep people who use drugs safer. That report also references a 2012 survey that found a substantial overlap between people who use and sell drugs, noting that 43% of people who reported selling drugs in the past year also said they had a substance use disorder.

In arguing for a more nuanced view of how to respond to the country’s overdose crisis, the Drug Policy Alliance recommended police and prosecutors treat drug-related cases as possession cases, unless there was “clear evidence” that person was selling or distributing drugs for “extensive financial gain.” They also suggested legislators repeal drug-induced homicide laws and create statutes that eliminate policies that block people with a criminal record’s access to housing, employment, professional licensing, and access to credit.

Here is a link to the full Drug Policy Alliance report.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.