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Could Medical Cannabis Reduce Prison Overdose Deaths?

could medical cannabis reduce prison overdose deaths

Every year, hundreds of thousands of American lives are lost because of drug overdose deaths. The consequences of drug addiction have become alarming in light of the harm that the opioid epidemic has caused. When it comes to overdose deaths, however, opioids are only the beginning.

When someone is incarcerated and serving a sentence for a criminal conviction, recreational drugs are prohibited. Inmates are not to have access to alcohol or drugs while they remain in prison. However, overdose deaths among inmate populations are also continuing to climb, as well as deaths that happen shortly after Americans are released on probation.

While overdose deaths are constantly reported, and the perils of drug addiction are known, inmates receive little coverage by mainstream media. The stigma of incarceration seems to make overdose death among inmates and people on parole less of a public health priority.

In this article, we’ll talk about the increased risks that Americans face when coping with drug addiction in state or federal penitentiaries. And take a look at what programs are available for inmates (and why they don’t seem to be working).

If doctor-supervised medical cannabis was available to both inmates and citizens released on parole, could it save lives? What other benefits could state-sponsored medical cannabis have to help released Americans rehabilitate more successfully?

drugs in prison

What Recreational Drugs Cause the Most U.S. Overdose Deaths?

There are many other affordable recreational drugs that cause as much harm to human health. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse in the United States, more than 106,000 persons died from a drug-involved overdose in 2021 alone.

Overdose deaths in the same period attributed to synthetic opioids (not including methadone) accounted for 70,601 fatalities. And doctor-prescribed opioids caused 16,706 deaths in 2021.

Overdose deaths from stimulants such as cocaine or psychostimulants with high abuse potential (like methamphetamine) have continued to increase significantly. And combinations of heroin and fentanyl rose from 12,122 overdose deaths in 2015 to 53,495 fatalities in 2021.

How Many Americans Are Incarcerated for Drug-Related Charges?

Drug offenses account for the incarceration of more than 350,000 Americans every year, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. Advocates estimate that more than 1 million charges for drug possession and arrests occur annually.

Statistics also show there is a significant racial disparity in drug arrests, with black and brown Americans more often arrested and sentenced for personal possession.

How Many Americans Have Drug Addictions When Incarcerated?

Given the systemic national problem with drug abuse and addiction, it is not surprising to learn that many people who are serving time have a drug addiction. Since the 1970s “War on Drugs,” the number of people that are incarcerated for drug offenses has continued to climb.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that over 85% of Americans who are incarcerated in state or federal institutions have a recurrent struggle with drug addiction. The rates of substance abuse disorders (SUDs) among inmates are difficult to measure accurately.

Research suggests that 65% of citizens incarcerated right now have an active substance abuse disorder. Where another 20% of inmates do not meet the criteria for SUD but were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time they committed their legal offense.

What is the Overdose Mortality Rate in American Prisons?

From 2001 to 2018, the number of citizens who died from drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons rose by more than 600%. That data comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In regional county jails, the number of overdose deaths in that period rose by 200%.


Source: Overdose death rate analysis provided to Vera by Professor Matthew Kiang, https://github.com/mkiang/opioid_trends/tree/vera-analysis.

Source: Overdose death rate analysis provided to Vera by Professor Matthew Kiang

How Do Inmates Acquire Controlled Substances in Prison?

Incarcerated Americans should have an expectation to be safe while serving time. Human rights laws require that they receive healthcare, mental health support, education, and other benefits to help them rehabilitate after they are released.

Many people have never been to a state or federal prison. If you do visit one, you will see that there are extreme security measures in place to prevent contraband from entering the prison population—an effort to protect both inmates and medical and security staff that work within the facility.

Despite best efforts, illicit drugs with high overdose potential funnel through the gates of even the best and most modern facilities. These are the common ways that controlled substances get into the hands of incarcerated Americans:

1. Visitors

Most prisons provide visitation rooms where family and friends can sit across a table and spend time with their loved ones. Sometimes, visitors can provide personal belongings such as books, letters, and even clothing (like socks or undergarments). Drugs can be hidden in personal effects and can evade detection by prison security.

2. Correctional Officers

It seems unthinkable that someone employed in enforcement would be responsible for funneling controlled substances into a state or federal prison. However, the hidden economy of the prison system allows for bribes and coercion, with great rewards for supplying inmates with contraband substances.

This can include everything from food or snacks to knives and drugs. In most states, correctional officers that are found guilty of smuggling contraband into prison are charged with a second or third-degree felony. And that includes an average fine of up to $10,000 and up to 10 years in jail. Often a lifetime reemployment ban is also provided, and guards may not work in law enforcement again after being convicted.

incarceration for drugs

3. Packages and Mail

Inmates are entitled by law to receive mail and packages. All mail received must be inspected by prison enforcement to check for contraband substances and weapons. There are ample security procedures in place.

However, even paper letters can be laced with drug substances that can be distilled or ‘cooked’ by the inmate upon receipt. And drugs can be hidden carefully in ways that may evade X-ray and visual detection.

4. Work Details

Often inmates are offered the opportunity to do community service type work for pay. This can include highway or park clean-up, agricultural work, and other types of labor. While exposure to the public is very controlled, it is possible for an inmate to arrange something to be left for them on the site. Or an interaction with a pedestrian, who may provide drugs and other contraband.

5. Black Market Trading

An inmate may not have a ‘connection’ through a visitor or a prison guard to get drugs, but every prison has an established black market for purchasing contraband. While prison enforcement tries to remove the trading rings and deploy random searches and drug dogs for inspection, it is not difficult for an inmate to acquire drugs in an institution.

Ultimately, if there is a will or a need, there is a way for inmates to get whatever they need while incarcerated. And while the penalties for drug use or possession may pile up on other charges (and increase the duration of the sentence), that is rarely a deterrent for inmates. Particularly those suffering from drug addiction and serving long sentences.

Which Drugs Are Responsible for Prison Overdose Mortality Rates?

Statistics from inmate overdose events and fatalities suggest that three categories of illicit drugs are responsible. These drugs, while different in composition, share some common qualities. Namely, they provide a euphoric high and are cheap to purchase illegally.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the drugs that pose the most threat to incarcerated Americans include:

1. Synthetic Cannabinoids

Spice or K2 is a cheap drug that is synthetically produced. Even though it is called ‘synthetic marijuana, it is not considered safe for consumption. However, K2 closely mimics the psychoactive effects of cannabis. And the synthetic chemicals used to produce Spice bind quickly to human cannabinoid receptors.

Using Spice can cause serious health problems. Adverse effects can include accelerated heart rate, high blood pressure, nausea, seizures, hallucinations, and psychosis. Spice is not regulated and is a street-produced drug. Therefore the chemicals can vary by batch, some of which are known carcinogens (or cancer-causing).

2. Methamphetamines

This type of drug, commonly referred to as “meth,” is highly addictive and stimulates the central nervous system. While meth belongs to the drug category of amphetamines, it can have a much stronger effect on the human brain.

The white crystalline powder can be smoked, injected with a carrier substance like water, or snorted dry. It can also be swallowed orally. Meth causes an increased release of the reuptake of neural transmitters, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. This causes a stimulated sense of euphoria.

3. Opioids and Synthetic Opioid Drugs

Prescription painkillers, including oxycodone and fentanyl, are easily acquired. Because so many Americans are prescribed these medications, they are frequently stolen from patients and resold. And make their way into the hands of drug abusers.

In 2021, there were 1,120,973 male inmates and 83,349 female citizens who were incarcerated. The total number of Americans in state or federal penitentiaries declined significantly since 2019. However, approximately 7 in 10 females (69%) meet the DSM-IV criteria for SUDs, while 6 in 10 men (57%) are incarcerated with a substance use disorder.

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Are Drug Addiction Therapies Available to Inmates in Prison?

All state and federal prisons provide drug addiction therapies. However, county jails may not have rehabilitation programs in effect. Substance abuse counseling is provided, as well as detoxification and withdrawal management. Some institutions also provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for withdrawal.

The services offered to support incarcerated Americans suffering from drug addiction vary by jurisdiction. However, some may provide therapeutic communities (support groups) in combination with vocational training, counseling, and education.

One of the most effective types of support for inmates with SUDs is aftercare and reentry programs. That helps citizens reintegrate back into society and prepares them for release. Community and faith-based supports may also help inmates with housing, job training, and ongoing addiction support. However, reentry programs are increasingly rare and often difficult to access for inmates after release.

Can Inmates Receive Doctor-Supervised Medical Marijuana?

Federal institutions cannot provide medical cannabis to inmates, given the status of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug and a prohibited substance. State penitentiaries could, in fact, institute laws that allow incarcerated citizens to have doctor-supervised medical cannabis.

Even in states where medical cannabis and recreational marijuana are permitted, inmates do not have legalized medical marijuana. That may not make sense until you realize that the federal government provides over $5 billion dollars in funding to state prisons. Violating federal laws regarding medical marijuana would jeopardize federal funding.

overdose mortality rate

Overdose Mortality Rates After Release

You may think that the greatest overdose risk for incarcerated Americans happens when they are serving their sentence. However, did you know that males and females are ten times more likely to overdose on drugs after they are released?

The longer the prison sentence, the more difficul

mmj and probation

t it can be to assimilate into normal life after release. Former inmates face social scrutiny, rejection from family and friends, and struggle to find and maintain employment or housing.

Think about the requirements for renting an apartment. It often involves two things that formerly incarcerated Americans cannot provide: 1) a good credit rating and 2) a clean criminal record or abstract. Once you check the box that you have a criminal record, it is often grounds for refusal for many things, such as a car loan, housing, and employment.

Former inmates may also be suffering from severe or chronic pain. Without an employer-sponsored healthcare plan, they may struggle to afford the prescription drugs they need for health conditions and symptoms.

The slide to recreational drug use is easier for many who cannot access affordable public health services. Recreational cannabis may be an option in some states, but it is also very expensive when you are in a low-income situation.

Health economics, lack of accessible or free human services, stress, depression, and anxiety can quickly lead an individual to acquire street drugs. Unfortunately, people who were incarcerated will migrate back to the drugs they may have used before.

Newly released individuals may also return to the potency and quantity they were accustomed to abusing without realizing that their tolerance to the drug declined during their incarceration. And the result can frequently be a fatal overdose.


Benefits of Providing Medical Marijuana to Incarcerated Americans

The opportunity to provide doctor-supervised medical cannabis should be discussed for people who are incarcerated. It may provide a safer alternative to other illicit substances, as cannabis has no recorded cases of fatal overdose incidents.

Medical cannabis is approved in some states to help prevent opioid overdose deaths. Many states allow opioid cessation as a qualifying health condition. A way for individuals struggling with addictions to segue to a drug that is safer to use. Which may help them curb opioid overdoses.

Sometimes illicit drug use has less to do with addiction and more to do with chronic pain relief, depression, anxiety, and other symptoms. By offering medical cannabis as a privilege in a controlled dose environment (administered by a doctor), it may help improve the mental health and wellness of inmate populations. And reduce the temptation to use other drugs that carry a high risk of overdose.

Medical cannabis could also be prescribed to incarcerated individuals upon release, with a cannabis healthcare provider assigned to assist them with symptom management and safe use. And also monitor the individual for signs of addiction to dangerous substances like opioids and methamphetamines.

Can Americans on Probation Get a Medical Cannabis Card?

In most states that have medical marijuana laws, individuals who are on probation are not “shut out” from participating. There are additional steps that someone on probation must take to ensure that they are not violating the terms of their release to avoid legal problems.

Read: “Can You Use Medical Marijuana On Probation” for more information. And research the medical cannabis laws in your home state to determine if it is an option for you or someone you love.






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