Drug Addiction and Incarceration

Last month, at a Capitol Hill briefing in Washington, D.C., experts gathered to address the surge in opioid drug abuse and fatal overdoses among people of all demographics within the United States. According to a 2010 study done by the Centers for Disease Control, prescription opioids accounted for 60% of overdose deaths, a statistic that has doubled in just over ten years. While there is work being done by federal and state agencies to deter future abuse of prescription painkillers, speakers of the event focused particularly on those who are imprisoned as a result of their addiction.

“Incarceration is not a treatment. You can’t think that just because someone’s been in jail for 30 days that they will be different when they get out,” said Joshua Lee, Ph.D., of the New York University Langone Medical Center. Lee is an addiction medicine specialist who treats patients incarcerated in New York City jails. Joining him was the founding director of the Center for Studies in Addiction, Charles O’Brien, Ph.D., who is a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member.

Charles O'Brien is the vice-chair of psychiatry and founding director of the Center for Studies in Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo credit: AAAS/Kathleen O'Neil

Charles O’Brien is the vice-chair of psychiatry and founding director of the Center for Studies in Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo credit: AAAS/Kathleen O’Neil

O’Brien has been collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and the Dana Foundation since both organizations provided funding for his research in the early 2000’s. His studies compared the high rate of drug overdose and relapse in those formerly incarcerated to the reduced rate of those prescribed NIDA’s opiate antagonist drug, naltrexone.

In his article for the Dana Foundation’s Report on Progress publication, he points to numerous issues with how addiction is theoretically “cured” and delves into why pharmaceutical companies are not doing more to develop drugs for effective treatment. O’Brien explains, “The most common treatment used for virtually all addictions and the intervention most likely to be covered by health insurance in the U.S. is detoxification…After the drug is gone, the patient and his family may think that the problem is over, but in truth, the addiction is still there.”

As noted in the AAAS write-up of the July event, both Lee and O’Brien believe that a new approach toward treating addicts is crucial within the criminal justice system. In many cases, O’Brien says, addicts have other mental illnesses that also require treatment, and studies have found that the combination of psychotherapy and medication is most effective.

In an interview conducted by Dana in 2011, he describes how scientific research has advanced the ability to treat addiction medically and why the relapse rate remains high even for those who receive therapy.

[T]here are so few doctors in the United States who know about treating alcoholism with medications that the vast majority of people who seek treatment don’t receive medications. This is true even for those who go to very expensive programs…Yet, the double-blind studies show that the medications work. This is a tragedy, because patients who happen to fall into the hands of physicians with that lack of knowledge may be condemned to keep relapsing.

The July 9th Capitol Hill luncheon was the latest in a continuing series of neuroscience briefings hosted by AAAS and supported by the Dana Foundation.

To watch the full event and learn more, see below:

– Seimi Rurup

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