Sep 27, 2023 - Health

Study: No link between PNW overdose deaths and drug laws

Illustration of a pair of bolt cutters cutting through barbed wire, which is shaped like a healthy heart rate.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

When Washington and Oregon lowered criminal penalties for drug crimes two years ago, it didn't lead to a sudden rise in overdose deaths in either state, a new study finds.

Why it matters: Critics have tied the states' more lenient approaches to drug crimes to recent rises in overdose deaths. But the researchers found no apparent connection.

Driving the news: The study, published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, looked at drug overdose rates after Oregon decriminalized drug possession in February 2021 and after Washington stopped treating low-level drug crimes as felonies that same year.

What they did: Researchers with New York University's medical school and the CDC looked at drug overdose rates in each state in the year after the new policies took effect.

  • They then compared those rates to what drug overdoses likely would have been had the new policies not been in place, basing those models largely on overdose rates in other states.

What they found: The team found no association between the decriminalization or diversion of drug crimes from the criminal justice system and a rise in overdose deaths.

  • At the same time, the researchers found that Oregon and Washington's new policies weren't associated with a decline in fatal overdoses, despite an increased focus on treatment and recovery.

What they're saying: "Basically what we found is overdoses are going up everywhere, and it's mostly due to this infiltration of fentanyl into the West Coast," Corey Davis, the study's principal investigator, told Axios.

  • Overdoses are up in Oregon and Washington, he said, "but they are also up in Idaho and Nevada and Nebraska."
  • He said the law changes in Oregon and Washington "didn't seem to have a measurable impact" on the trend.

Yes, but: Research published earlier this month in the Journal of Health Economics came to a different conclusion, finding that in the months after Oregon decriminalized possession, unintentional drug overdoses were 23% higher than they would have been without the legislation.

  • Kevin Sabet, head of the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions, told Axios Portland's Emily Harris the new study is "limited" because it went through only March 2022, while overdose numbers he tracks showed an increase later that year.

What we're watching: The NYU researchers agreed it's important to look at more data, writing that "some aspects of these laws may take time to be associated with fatal drug overdoses."

  • At the same time, it's possible overdose rates could go down as Washington and Oregon stand up some of their overdose prevention and recovery programs, Davis said.
  • His team analyzed the period before Oregon began directing cannabis revenue toward those programs. Washington recently approved more money for treatment and prevention, too.
  • "It's possible that as that money starts rolling out, it will result in a reduction in overdose deaths," Davis said. "We don't know."

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