In the United States our prisons and jails house more people convicted of drug offenses than any other offense. Jail and prison for most of the 20th century has been the government’s answer to the drug problem. While the system has improved in the last two decades, as far as offering treatment instead of jail time, there are still thousands of people locked up for crimes related to their addiction. Unfortunately, when the time comes for release most people will go back to using drugs because they did not have an opportunity to develop a support network which will help them work towards recovery. This reality ultimately leads people back to jail, as drug use leads to crime and crime leads to jail.
In an attempt to cut back on jail recidivism and preventing overdoses, a study was conducted that involved giving parolees the drug naltrexone, an opioid antagonist, to help prevent relapse upon release. The initial results from a pilot study prompted a five-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health, according to Charles P. O’Brien, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. The study was conducted in five sites and the findings from that study suggest parolees taking naltrexone are less likely to relapse and to die from a drug overdose. Addicts released from jail who go back to using often times do not realize how significantly their tolerance drops, so when they get high for the first time they have trouble gauging their dose which leads to overdoses.
“That result is important because there is a very high rate of overdose in former prisoners; they often don’t realize that they have lost their tolerance for opiates,” Dr. O’Brien says in an interview with the Dana Foundation. “The same dose of heroin or oxycodone that used to make them feel good may now kill them. This is a real risk.” O’Brien points out that preventing relapses will save states a lot of money when you consider that the annual cost of a bed in prison is between $40,000 and $60,000.
“My hope is that the data will convince judges, prosecutors, and parole officers that naltrexone will help addicts stay off drugs, help prisons empty out a bit, and save a lot of money,” he says.