Law enforcement response to opioid epidemic

The opioid epidemic sweeping our nation did not happen overnight. A large factor attributed as a root of today’s crisis is the rise of prescription drug addiction and abuse, including: the philosophy of pain management and associated attempts to alleviate suffering through pharmaceutical drugs.

On March 7, 2012, the House of Representative subcommittee on crime, terrorism, and homeland security held hearings to review the prescription drug epidemic in America. These hearings reveal the extent to which this crisis had grown, with testimony and written statements asserting that:

  • 254 million prescriptions for opioids were filled in the U.S. in 2010, which is “enough painkillers to medicate every single American adult around the clock for a month” (House of Representatives, 2012).
  • The original purpose for OxyContin was to only be prescribed to help patients in the last stages of cancer or other severe illnesses, but OxyContin and other generic oxycodone drugs are being prescribed for less severe reasons, which has expanded the availability of the drugs and potential for their abuse (House of Representatives, 2012).

Efforts to address prescription drug abuse have focused on educating prescribers on the risks of prescribing opioids and expansion of programs for monitoring prescription drugs (ONDCP, 2015). While these efforts have been successful in slowing prescription opioid overdoses, the success in reducing prescription opioid overdoses has largely been offset by easy access to cheaper, more potent, and less controlled opioid sources, such as heroin and synthetic opiates like fentanyl. As Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland, stated on Frontline (2016), “the cartels were the first to realize that the pill market was essentially priming the heroin market.”

As a result of persistent demand for opioids, combined with the inability to obtain these drugs through other means, the number of deaths from illicitly manufactured and supplied heroin and synthetic opiates has skyrocketed. Several approaches have been attempted across the U.S. to deal with this vexing social issue. The default option for handling opioid use and associated crimes like theft, trespassing, and vagrancy is arrest and incarceration. This approach, however, has been insufficient alone in solving the problem. Arrest, incarceration, and release results in a vicious cycle of offender recidivism without solving the underlying problem. Lieutenant Leslie Mills of Washington Department of Corrections captures the essence of the problem, stating:

We could not incarcerate these people or arrest our way out of the problem. You want to arrest a person, they’d be in jail for 20-30 days. They would get sober. They would start using again, we’d continue to arrest them (Frontline, 2015).

As a result, local law enforcement agencies have approached opioid addictions with many different non-traditional responses, including:

  • Routing drug cases through state drug courts rather than traditional criminal courts (ONDCP, 2017).
  • Equipping law enforcement officers with naloxone to provide immediate life-saving means to those arriving to the scene of drug overdoses (ONDCP, 2017).
  • Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) and other diversion programs focused on treatment over incarceration (Frontline, 2016).
  • Alternate prescription drug treatment programs, such as methadone clinics or prescribing suboxone (Frontline, 2016).
    Beyond the local level, the federal government has also been actively involved in developing strategy and policy to counter the opioid epidemic.
  • Preventing drug use in our communities.
  • Breaking the cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration.
  • Disrupting domestic drug trafficking and production.
  • Protect first responders from harmful effects resulting from exposure to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

Because this epidemic did not reach its current proportions overnight, it will not be resolved by any single measure or level of response. The resolution of the opioid crisis will only result from the collaborative effort of local and state law enforcement, working in partnership with local communities and treatment resources, and acting in concert with the overall strategy and policies developed by the federal government.

Source: FBINAA magazine
By: Todd Rossbach