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Study suggests law enforcement drug seizures could be associated with increase in overdoses

The research raises questions about the effectiveness of supply-side interventions to combat the overdose epidemic

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A new study led by RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, has found that law enforcement drug seizures are associated with an increase in overdoses in the surrounding geographic area in the following three weeks.

The study raises questions about the effectiveness of drug interdiction efforts to combat overdose and concerns about policies that might be exacerbating overdoses in the U.S. during a persistent epidemic that is contributing to reductions in the nation's life expectancy.

“Our findings provide more evidence that efforts to disrupt drug markets can have an iatrogenic effect in generating public harm,” said Bradley Ray, Ph.D., a senior researcher at RTI who led the study. “It’s concerning to think routine drug enforcement can exacerbate harms, so we need to focus on mitigating these sources of overdose risk.”

The research team used two years of administrative data from Marion County, Indiana, to compare different types of drug seizures with subsequent changes in fatal overdoses, nonfatal overdose calls for emergency medical services, and naloxone administration in the surrounding area.

Within seven, 14 and 21 days, opioid-related law enforcement drug seizures were significantly associated with increased overdoses within 100, 250 and 500 meters of the seizure location.

Most notably, the number of fatal overdoses was two-fold higher than expected within seven days and 500 meters of an opioid-related seizure.

Ray and his colleagues hypothesize that the increase in overdose events after a police seizure is because people who use opioids will generally seek out a new illicit supply with unknown potency and will likely do so with diminished tolerance after losing access to their previous drug supply.

“One of the risks of the illicit drug market is uncertainty about what constitutes a safe dose,” added Ray. “If people who use drugs lose access to their usual supply, they are forced to find an unknown supplier, which introduces uncertainty about what is in the drugs they procure, thereby increasing overdose risk.”

The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health. It was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Read the full study 

Learn more about RTI’s research on interventions for substance use