How Jailing Drug Users Increases Opioid Overdoses

The standard view of the opioid epidemic blames pharmaceutical companies and doctors for excessive prescribing. An alternate view blames government for outlawing or restricting access to opioids.  In this view, users overdose not from medical use but from consuming diverted or black market opioids of unpredictable quality and potency.

Current restrictions also causes overdoses by enforcing abstinence on people, who then lose their tolerance to opioids.  Some such people nevertheless return to their pre-abstinence dose, with disastrous consequences, when no longer forced to abstain.  A key illustration is released prisoners.

A study by Harding-Pink and Frye (1988) examined 102 sudden deaths of prisoners that occurred within 17 years of their release. The study found that of the 102 deaths, 42 were drug related. Further, while 41 percent of the total deaths were drug-related, 66 percent of the deaths within one year of release were drug-related. The study also found that 60 percent of all of the drug-related deaths occurred within the first year, and the first year had twice as many drug-related deaths as the next three combined.

Binswanger et. al. (2007) examined the deaths of all inmates released from Washington State Department of Corrections from 1999-2003. Overdoses caused a quarter of all deaths, with a yearly mortality rate of 181 per 100,000, 13 times the rate of an average Washington state resident. Further, over a quarter of the total post-release overdose deaths occurred within the first two weeks of release. A yearly mortality rate of 1840 per 100,000 is 129 times the rate of the average Washington state resident.

Maryland’s Department of Health released a similar study in 2014. Between 2007 and 2013 the department monitored the opioid overdose rate of individuals who had been released from jail or prisoner for one year after release. Prisoners were 8.8 times more likely to die of an overdose in their first 7 days of release compared to 91-365 days after release. The opioid-related mortality rate of inmates within their first year of release was 70 per 100,000, 6 times greater than Maryland’s opioid-related death rate in 2012 of 11 per 100,000. In the first week of release, where 58 percent of the opioid-related deaths occurred, the yearly mortality rate was 2080 deaths per 100,000, 190 times the Maryland mortality rate!

All these studies suggest the alternative explanation for the opioid epidemic – more restrictions, more deaths – rather than the standard view – more prescribing, more deaths.


Theseus Schulze contributed to this blog post.