With More Opioid Use, People Are More Likely to Get Caught up in the Justice System


By Rhitu Chatterjee

People addicted to prescription opioids or heroin are far more likely to have run-ins with the law than those who don’t use opioids, according to a study published Friday in JAMA Network Open.

The study provides the first nationwide estimate for the number of people using opioids who end up in the American criminal justice system. The results suggest a need to engage law enforcement officials and corrections systems to tackle the opioid epidemic.

The connection between the criminal justice system and substance abuse is well-known. About 65 percent of people who are incarcerated are known to have a substance use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

And yet there is little national data tracking the intersection of the criminal justice system and the ongoing opioid epidemic.

“There have been reports that jails and prisons are bearing the brunt of the opioid epidemic, but we didn’t know nationally how many people who use opioids are involved in the criminal justice system,” says Tyler Winkelman, a clinician-investigator at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis and the lead author of the study.

To get that national picture, Winkelman and his colleagues analyzed data from 78,976 respondents to the annual National Survey on Drug Use And Health, which collects information on substance use by respondents, as well as information on their socioeconomic status, education and health.

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