One major, yet often overlooked contributor to the malignancy of the opioid crisis is our criminal justice system. Jails and prisons are notorious for forcing abstinence upon opioid addicts, despite the known dangers of doing so. Forced abstinence precipitates physical withdrawal, leading to severe and overwhelming cravings, while simultaneously reducing one’s physical tolerance for opioids. Lowered tolerance coupled with the rise of highly potent synthetic opioids make recently incarcerated opioid addicts 129X more likely to overdose compared with the general population.

The risk of overdose within the first few weeks of release cannot be emphasized enough. Experts in the field of addiction medicine have deemed incarceration as the most lethal and socially disruptive point of an opioid addiction. Incarceration usually leads to prolonged periods of abstinence, and though drug use ceases during these periods, the addiction itself does not. Incarceration addresses the drug offense, not the underlying illness contributing to the drug offense. The inadequacy of forced abstinence is reflected in the statistics alone: 95% return to drug use following incarceration, and 60-80% reoffend within one year. Given the significantly higher risk of overdosing upon release, it should come as no surprise that recently incarcerated populations comprise a substantial proportion of the death toll.

Medications like buprenorphine and methadone can counteract the disruptive effects of opioid addiction on the brain and reduce up to 75% of overdoses in the weeks following incarceration, Despite the life-saving potential of these medications, less than 1% of correctional facilities offer them to opioid addicts. The remaining 99% of jails and prisons force abstinence, which renews cycle of relapse and recidivism that predisposes opioid addicts to overdose and death. These post-release fatalities have fueled massive spikes in the death toll and is why the criminal justice system's role in this crisis cannot be overlooked.

Please visit our medication-assisted treatment page to learn more about ways to effectively manage opioid addiction and prevent fatal overdoses