As Opioid Hospitalizations Soar, Report Claims Imprisoning Drug Offenders Doesn’t Affect Overdoses Or Use

Image courtesy of Great Beyond

Since 2005, the rate of opioid-related emergency room visits has doubled and hospitalizations are up 64%. At the same time, many states are sending more people to prison for drug-related offenses. However, a new analysis contends that there is no apparent link between drug imprisonments and reining in the problems associated with the ongoing epidemic.

In a letter [PDF] sent this week to the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts argue that the available data shows no relationship between a state’s willingness to punish a drug offender and that state’s drug-related woes.

To be clear, the letter indicates that neither high nor low levels of imprisonment appear ultimately relevant to folks’ use of dangerous drugs.

Compare Louisiana, the state with the highest level of drug-related imprisonment (226.4 prisoners for every 100,000 people) to the state with the lowest rate, Massachusetts (30.2 per 100,000). Though the two states have drastically different measures in place for dealing with drug offenders, neither can really claim that they are making much of a difference. Louisiana has the 13th-highest rate of adult illicit drug use in the country and is in the middle of the pack (23rd) for overdose rate. Meanwhile, Massachusetts is in the bottom third (#39) for drug use and 13th for overdose rate.

The state with the lowest rate for overdoses is North Dakota, but its imprisonment rate is only the 14th highest and is less than half that of Louisana’s. West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose, but its drug use rate is only ranked 32nd.

Wyoming has the lowest rate of drug use in the country, and the third highest overall drug imprisonment rate, but it’s also #14 for drug overdoses.

This is all to say that, per Pew’s analysis of the data, the threat of prison time doesn’t seem to have any direct impact on the effects of the drug epidemic.

“The absence of any relationship between state rates of drug imprisonment and drug problems suggests that expanding drug imprisonment is not likely to be an effective national drug control and prevention strategy,” concludes the letter, which also points to previous studies, like a 2014 report on incarceration in the U.S. from the National Research Council, which found that minimum sentencing requirements for criminal offenders has “few, if any, deterrent effects.”

Argues the Pew letter, “The most effective response to the growth in opioid misuse, research suggests, is a combination of law enforcement to curtail trafficking and halt the emergence of new markets; alternative sentencing to divert nonviolent drug offenders from costly imprisonment; treatment to reduce dependency and recidivism; and prevention efforts that can identify individuals at high risk for developing substance use disorders.”