When drug busts lead to more overdoses we’re on the wrong path

It's past time to shift away from the War on Drugs

MOST THOUGHTFUL police leaders will tell you that they will not arrest their way out of the drug abuse epidemic. A mountain of research supports their views. Still, as opioid overdoses alone have accounted for nearly 1 million lives lost in the United States in the past two decades, we remain mired in a strategy that features enforcement as a primary instrument.

We get new information regularly directing us to change course. A study published in the current edition of the American Journal of Public Health is more new evidence for the rethinking of our strategy on drug addiction and trafficking.  

The study, led by Bradley Ray at Research Triangle Institute, found an association between drug busts and spikes in opioid overdose deaths in the surrounding neighborhoods in Indianapolis. As reported in the medical news website Stat, under the headline “The Drug Bust Paradox,” the study found that fatal overdoses, calls to 911, and the use of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone increased in neighborhoods immediately after big drug busts.

Why the spike in overdose deaths following drug busts that presumably rid the streets of some of the dealers supplying deadly drugs?

The researchers posit that opioid users turn to alternative suppliers with whom they are unfamiliar. According to the researchers’ hypothesis, those new dealers may sell drugs that contain higher levels of fentanyl or new additives, like xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer, and lidocaine. “Similarly, when people who use opioids lose access to the drugs, even brief periods of abstinence can trigger not only withdrawal symptoms but also reduced biological tolerance,” they wrote. “As a result, they face a two-sided risk: an urgent need to use caused by withdrawal, and an unfamiliar supply caused by a sudden shift to a new dealer.” 

Jennifer Carroll, a medical anthropologist at North Carolina State University and one of the paper’s authors, told Stat,Our study confirmed a hypothesis, or a very grounded belief, that many people have shared with me and my colleagues in the last few years — that includes people who use drugs, harm reductionists, first responders, members of law enforcement. Folks across the country have told us that they see overdoses spike after a major bust or after a lab closure or some kind of interdiction.” 

Drug operations are expensive and dangerous for everyone involved. The original point of drug laws was to prevent addiction, not to arrest violators, per se. Yet, in most cases, anti-drug operations have become both ends unto themselves. We have glamorized drug enforcement as the coolest aspect of police work, at least since 1969, when Popeye Doyle chased “The French Connection” in Robin Moore’s book (and later in the classic movie of the same name).

At about the same time President Richard Nixon declared American policing was at “War on Drugs.” Of course, wars require enemies. That enemy became Black males and the battlefield America’s inner city. Fifty-four years later, Popeye’s great-grandchildren are still fighting that “war.”

We continue to romanticize drug enforcers as warriors in jeans and high-end sneakers. The vast majority of drug cops take on the dangers of the work to prevent the senseless deaths associated with drug abuse and trafficking. Is this the highest and best use of this level of dedication and valor? We should ask the question, with all these decades of experience and evidence to prompt us, whether we expose officers and civilians alike to dangers that are not worth the costs, in blood and treasure.

But we — society and our elected representatives — continue to resist a serious grappling with the facts. Perhaps from fear of looking “soft” on drugs our elected representatives shy away from a frank and open reconsideration of the effectiveness of the statutory regime on drugs and drug addiction. What we have does not work and we continue stubbornly to keep it up. 

In police guardrooms and city halls everywhere in the US, elected officials and police bosses will pose behind tables laden with seized contraband. (One has to wonder what effect the displays of piles of cash, drugs, and weaponry have had on the impressionable minds of adolescent males.) These tableaux vivant have a strong whiff of implied rectitude about them as well. Even if this bust did nothing to address the addiction epidemic, the scenes suggest, we did something, we raised our banner on high and carried on the crusade.  

Part of the explanation for society’s hesitancy to think anew about how to address addiction and related harms may be that we just cannot summon enough concern. The Pew Research Center found that despite increases in overdose deaths, the share of Americans who say drug addiction is “a major problem” in their local community declined by 7 percentage points, from 42 percent in 2018 to 35 percent in 2021. And in a separate Pew survey in early 2022, dealing with drug addiction ranked lowest out of 18 priorities for the president and Congress to address that year.

Commenting on the Indianapolis drug bust study in Stat, Leo Beletsky, an addiction researcher and professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, said the results are “not really a surprise. It underscores the reality that a lot of the time, in our illicit drug policy, there are untested hypotheses that get accepted as gospel, and law enforcement and politicians often repeat those hypotheses. Things like: If we crack down on drug dealers, that’s the way that we’re going to reduce overdose deaths.”

Data mine your local newspaper(s) and TV news and see how many times “crack-down” and “beef-up” have appeared in headlines on the scourge of drugs. Such announcements and activities became standard operating procedure because they showed officials are doing something. In the face of the desperation, effort measures replaced effectiveness measures.  

Meet the Author
The ideas that developed the War on Drugs arose from ancient, deeply-embedded mythology and beliefs regarding crime and punishment. That would be irrelevant were these laws and enforcement practices actually to facilitate reduction in drug addiction. This is a deeply complex problem in American life. Solutions will take a long time. Despite the difficulties, there is no time like right now to start a candid and honest conversation in our state and federal legislatures about effective interventions. 

Jim Jordan is the retired director of strategic planning at the Boston Police Department. He has taught police strategy at Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and in training settings around the country.