Reassessing Law Enforcement’s Approach to the Opioid Epidemic

Police car waits outside city building

This week, we took a look at various studies which assess the scientific basis of law enforcement interventions intended to prevent or at least minimize the negative effects of the opioid epidemic. Many people agree that we “can’t arrest our way out of the opioid crisis.” The end result of the “war on drugs” and the criminalization of addiction has led to a cycle of over-incarceration that has failed to address the root causes of drug abuse in our communities. Local governments are beginning to reassess those practices and shift their approach to drug enforcement. Below, we examine the effectiveness of suggested solutions and goals for law enforcement.

Divert from criminal justice system

City and county leaders should consider the approach of empowering local law enforcement officials to use alternatives to arrest for low risk offenders who commit low-level crimes associated with drug abuse. As studies have shown, providing intensive intervention for these individuals can actually increase recidivism. Instead of criminalizing addiction, communities can take a different approach: treat substance abuse disorders as a treatable disease that requires treatment. As we discussed in a previous blog, drug courts are an extremely health and cost effective method. Many communities nationwide are also implementing a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a police-led diversion program which allows law enforcement officers to redirect people suspected of committing specific, low-level crimes, including drug related offenses, to community-based services rather than to jail. The primary goal of the LEAD program is to improve public safety by addressing the underlying factors that drive criminal justice contact.

Facilitate treatment in jails

Local leaders can also work to ensure that inmates struggling with substance use disorder receive the appropriate treatment. The Federal Bureau of Prisons found that when these treatment programs are well-designed and carefully implemented they:

  • Reduce relapse
  • Reduce criminality
  • Reduce recidivism
  • Reduce inmate misconduct
  • Increase the level of the offender’s stake in societal norms
  • Increase levels of education and employment upon return to the community
  • Improve health and mental health symptoms and conditions

Currently, the state of Ohio runs the AOD Intensive Prison Program, a 90-day program focusing on education, training, work, and substance abuse treatment. Upon successful completion of the program, an inmate’s sentence may be reduced.

Using Data to Guide Police to “Hotspots”

Cincinnati Chief Data Officer Brandon Crowley presented how data is being used to track the city’s opioid epidemic. The dataset helps the city deploy first responders, increases public safety and police presence in “hotspots” for overdoses, and advises community outreach based on trends. Data collection can be a powerful tool at the local, state and national levels, offering health officials and law enforcement necessary insight that can be used to stem the epidemic.

Supply Control

The goal of supply control programs is to keep street prices high and reduce availability of illicit opioids by interfering with drug suppliers’ activities. Ideally, effective supply control would make a drug so scarce that users wouldn’t be able to find a supplier without a lot of difficulty or expense. Empirical evidence supports two broad conclusions about the effectiveness of supply control:

First, if law enforcement can keep prices high, drug initiation and use will be reduced. However, many studies show that the response to high prices will be the “adjustment of purity”: Leading to drugs such as heroin, being laced with other harmful drugs like carfentanil. Drug users are typically unaware that they are purchasing laced drugs, resulting in greater frequency of lethal overdoses. In August 2016, in a span of just two days, Cincinnati’s emergency services responded to more than 60 heroin overdoses, many of which resulted from batches of heroin laced with carfentanil.

Second, studies have consistently shown that increasing imprisonment of dealers or drug traffickers is a very expensive way to increase prices in an established drug market. Illicit drugs are ultimately consumer goods; and at the end of the day, as long as there is a demand, there will be someone to supply it.


Criminalizing addiction has left many communities facing high and expensive incarceration rates, that fail to address the root causes of the opioid epidemic. Because law enforcement interacts with many people in the community, they are a great resource in the effort to identify those who need treatment. Local law enforcement plays a crucial role in the response to the epidemic, and has the opportunity to assess the way they respond to addiction. Instead of a focus on arrest and jail time, law enforcement can promote the safety and overall public good of their community by focusing resources on diverting individuals struggling with substance abuse disorder, away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate treatments.