Adults who use opioids are more likely to have “complicated health profiles and high levels of involvement in the criminal justice system” compared with adults who do not, according to a retrospective, cross-sectional analysis published July 6 in JAMA Network Open.
“The large proportion of individuals with opioid use disorders who have physical and mental health conditions and who contact the criminal justice system suggests that public health interventions to combat the opioid epidemic ... should coordinate treatment between the criminal justice and health care systems,” wrote Tyler N.A. Winkelman, MD, and his colleagues.
The investigators evaluated a representative sample of responses from 78,976 U.S. adults aged 18-64 who completed the 2015-2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, of which 31.3% reported use of prescription opioids, 4.3% reported misuse of opioids, 0.8% reported abuse of prescription opioids, and 0.4% reported heroin use.
The researchers also studied the health characteristics of each individual based on their level of opioid use, whether individuals used other substances in addition to prescription opioids, and the respondents’ recent and distant involvement in the criminal justice system, reported Dr. Winkelman, who is affiliated with the division of general internal medicine at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, and his colleagues.
After adjustment for health characteristic prevalence and co-occurring substance use across opioid use levels, compared with individuals who reported no opioid use, Dr. Winkelman and his associates found a higher prevalence of mental illness among individuals across four categories: prescription opioid use, prescription opioid misuse, prescription opioid use disorder, and heroin use. They also found a higher prevalence of self-reported chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure across various levels of opioid use, compared with people who reported no opioid use.
Furthermore, Dr. Winkelman and his associates found that as the intensity of opioid use increased, individuals reported an increased prevalence of mild, moderate, and severe mental illness. Individuals who increased their intensity of opioid use also had a greater likelihood of co-occurring substance use with at least one other substance. For example, individuals who misused opioids or used heroin reported that they used tranquilizers or sedatives in more than 50% of cases. Of individuals who reported heroin use, 88.5% said they used prescription opioids within the past year, reported Dr. Winkelman, also a staff physician at the Adult Detention Center in Hennepin County, Minn., and his associates.
The researchers also found 22.4% of individuals (95% confidence interval, 21.7-23.1) who used prescription opioids, 33.2% of individuals who misused prescription opioids (95% CI, 30.9-35.6), 51.7% of individuals with prescription opioid use disorder (95% CI, 45.4-58.0), and 76.8% of individuals with heroin use (95% CI, 70.6-82.1) had any contact with the criminal justice system, compared with 15.9% (95% CI, 15.4-16.4) of individuals who did not report prescription opioid use.
“The overlap we found between involvement in the criminal justice system and opioid use suggests that access to opioid treatment within the criminal justice system is a critical public health issue,” the researchers wrote.
Among the limitations cited were the National Survey on Drug Use and Health’s cross-sectional design, which makes it difficult to determine whether opioid use preceded involvement in the criminal justice system, or vice versa.
Nevertheless, they said, the study provides the most comprehensive picture to date of the status across several domains of people who use opioids.
“Given the complex health and criminal justice profiles of individuals who use opioids, policy makers should carefully consider how changes to public health insurance programs and sentencing guidelines may aid or hinder a public health approach to the opioid epidemic,” wrote Dr. Winkelman and his colleagues.
Dr. Winkelman disclosed his affiliation with the Hennepin County detention center. Another author disclosed employment with the Colorado Permanente Medical Group and royalties from uptodate.com.
SOURCE: Winkelman TNA et al. JAMA Network Open. 2018 Jul 6. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0558.