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Giving this drug to some addicted prisoners can help cut down on violent crime, study finds

Prescribing methadone to convicts addicted to opioids can help reduce both violent and nonviolent crime, a Canadian study found.
Prescribing methadone to convicts addicted to opioids can help reduce both violent and nonviolent crime, a Canadian study found. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Tech. Sgt. Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner)

There’s a way to reduce crime, and it involves giving convicts who are addicted to opioids a drug.

Those findings come from a study published in the journal Addiction that suggests prescribing methadone — an opioid often used to treat dependance on other opioids — to addicted prisoners can significantly reduce violent and nonviolent crime.

Researchers from Canada’s Simon Fraser University examined data collected on everyone in the British Columbia justice system from 1998 to 2015 and information compiled by the country’s Ministry of Health on methadone prescriptions. They found that during the first two years of methadone treatment, violent crime among those who were behind bars fell 33 percent while nonviolent crime similarly decreased by 35 percent.

As time went on, the effect of methadone treatments on crime becomes more subtle, the researchers found.

This study — hailed as the first “to analyze the links between medication and crime” — has major implications for reducing the size of a community’s prison population and the cost that is associated with it, said SFU health sciences professor Julian Somers.

“Patients in the justice system with substance and mental health issues costs tax payers $60,000 year over year,” Somers told The Vancouver Sun. “Our findings suggest that if we don’t support these patients with maintaining methadone treatments the public’s investment in helping these people will be completely lost.”

But the study also has some caveats, as researchers say they can only study crime that has been logged by authorities.

Just over 13 percent of Canadians reported using some opioid during 2015 – with 2.2 percent saying they were taking the drug for nonmedical reasons, according to data compiled by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. In the first six months of last year, 1,460 people in the country died from using opioids.

The opioid crisis has hit the U.S. hard, too. In 2016, more than 42,000 people died from opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a six-fold increase in such deaths when compared with 1999.

Some researchers have found a similar tie between use of the drug and crime. Richard Rosenfeld, from the University of Missouri in St. Louis, told Vox that there’s a potential relationship between opioid use and murder rates in the U.S.

More people are getting the drug through illegal avenues instead of a doctor’s prescription, he argued, pushing those who are addicted into the illegal market that is fraught with a greater risk of violence.

“Those underground markets tend to be relatively volatile and sometimes violent places,” he told Vox, “so I’m suggesting that what we’re seeing here is a spike in drug-related homicides associated with drug transactions that become violent.”

Kenneth McKoy, who runs a ministry in St. Louis that aims to stop violence in the city, said that the opioid crisis and violent crime are “one in the same.” He told USA Today about 29-year-old Ben Ledbetter, whom McKoy stopped from crawling over a fence to a barking Rottweiler while Ledbetter “was high out of his mind.”

“We stopped him,” he said, “and I told him that dog will kill you if you jump over that fence.”

Ledbetter survived that day, McKoy said in an interview with USA Today, but he died shortly after. Police believe the Air Force veteran was shot and killed in retaliation after using counterfeit money to pay for heroin.

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