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New Study Finds Police Drug Seizures Increase the Risk of Overdose

Law enforcement agencies have long been engaged in the seizure of illicit drugs as part of the racist War on Drugs being waged for years. Now a recent study has shed light on a troubling connection between these police seizures and an increase in overdoses within the surrounding communities. The CDC funded study only further underscores how the institution of policing is dangerous to public health and needs to be abolished.

Mike Pappas

August 5, 2023
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A recent study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published in the American Journal of Public Health, focused on two years of opioid and stimulant seizure data from the Indianapolis police. The researchers examined how these seizures impacted fatal and non-fatal overdoses in the areas where the seizures took place within specific time frames. The results found fatal overdoses doubled in the week following an opioid seizure within approximately 500 meters of the seizure location. Additionally, the distribution of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, by paramedics doubled in the two weeks following an opioid-related drug seizure within the same radius.

While study authors note the study was not meant to establish a “causal relationship” between police drug busts and a spike in overdoses, the study did shed light on the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. When individuals who use opioids are cut off from their supply due to a seizure, they experience withdrawal symptoms and a decrease in tolerance. Consequently, when they seek out a new supplier, they are at a higher risk of overdose due to the unknown potency of the drugs they obtain. This heightened vulnerability contributes to the increase in overdoses observed in the aftermath of police seizures. We see once again, efforts to “curb drug use” and “protect people” as part of the racist War on Drugs have almost the complete opposite effect.  

The Alarming Reality of Overdoses in the United States

The United States is currently grappling with a devastating overdose crisis, with fentanyl playing a significant role in driving the record-breaking numbers. In 2022 alone, over 109,000 individuals lost their lives to drug overdoses and projections suggest that the death toll could rise to a staggering 165,000 by 2025. While there are a multitude of factors which contribute to addiction, the current epidemic in the US was partly fueled by the efforts of families like the Sackler family and pharmaceutical companies, such as Purdue Pharma, which helped push the prescriptions of opioids, claiming they were safer, despite having information to the contrary. They even later fought to cover up data and outcomes of opioid abuse.

Biden has attempted to pose himself as someone critical of the companies that helped create the epidemic promising a watchdog for opioid settlement funds. While there has been a focus on settlement funds, the capitalists who helped actually create the problem, and the capitalist politicians they worked with, continue to go free. The Biden administration has also tried to present itself as being interested in harm reduction strategies by stating it plans to increase access to naloxone and drug testing strips, while also exploring expanding overdose prevention programs. But the administration’s key strategy continues to be focusing on criminalization and the ongoing fight in the War on Drugs. The administration’s 2023 fiscal budget included $18 billion for domestic and international policing to supposedly crack down on the drug supply chain — despite the fact that the criminalization of drugs help create the profitable supply chains in the first place and despite the fact that we know police are often the ones supplying the drugs into communities themselves

This most recent overdose study only further underscores the fact that, contrary to popular belief, the role of the police is not to protect the public. Various policing agencies were historically established to maintain control over marginalized and oppressed communities, while being used at various points to target and suppress activists and social movements that target the status quo, suppressing the collective agency of communities and perpetuating social and economic inequalities. Policing has always existed to safeguard the interests of capitalists, while perpetuating systemic injustice and violence on marginalized populations. Now, this new CDC funded study only further adds to the long list of horrible outcomes of policing in the US and underscores how policing directly undermines public health.

The study authors call for a re-evaluation of current drug enforcement strategies. Authors correctly note that it is crucial to recognize that the confiscation of drugs without addressing the underlying issues only exacerbates the risks faced by individuals who use drugs. The disruption of the drug supply chain through seizures can lead to a dangerous shift in drug potency and quality, thereby increasing the likelihood of overdose. They note that to address the issue of drug overdose, a comprehensive and harm reduction-oriented approach is necessary, which would include expanding access to harm reduction services, such as safe consumption sites, drug checking programs, and comprehensive substance use treatment. While these incremental reforms may offer some improvements, the authors are unfortunately unable to grapple with the true role of police in our society in the conclusions they glean from their data. For example, they claim “public safety partnerships” with police could “entail timely notice of interdiction events” to particular agencies. 

Abolishing Policing: A Radical Solution for Public Health

The issue of drug overdose will not be resolved with better policing or better “public safety partnerships” with police. A truly transformative approach to public health and overdose would require a completely different approach to drug use. It would necessitate the abolition of the entire system of policing that only causes harm to the poor and working class. But we must be clear: we cannot abolish the police under capitalism. This further underscores the need to forcefully overthrow the entire system, replacing it with a system where workers control the economy and resources. This most recent study only reinforces the police are a threat to public health and how there will be no capitalist solution to the overdose crisis.

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Mike Pappas

Mike is an activist and medical doctor working in New York City.

United States

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