Expert opinion:Police drug seizures lead to increase in overdose deaths

Apr 15, 2024

A recent analysis article published by Vancouver CityNews and authored by Charlie Carey examined the link between police drug busts and harms related to illicit drug supply. According to some research studies, police drug seizures can result in an increased number of fatal overdoses due to unregulated toxic drug supply.

One review study carried out by researchers from Brown University in 2023 concluded that harm reduction should be prioritised over prohibition to reduce the risk of overdose deaths.

“Studies in this review provided consistent evidence that fentanyl-related seizure measures are positively associated with overdose mortality outcomes, despite the limitations inherent in drug seizure data, even in the absence of available information regarding seizure weight or dosage,” wrote the authors.

As part of the review study, 14 U.S.-based studies were examined, where 12 of the 14 studies contained a statistical test of association between overdose mortality significantly increased in geographic proximity and following the drug seizure.

In her interview with Vancouver CityNews, Nicole Luongo, systems change analyst at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said that the association between police drug seizures and increased overdose deaths can be accounted for by the so-called iron law of prohibition. “[This term] refers to the documented phenomenon that, as law enforcement becomes more intense around black markets and specifically unregulated drug markets, the potency of those unregulated substances is going to increase,” said Luongo. “The harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs.”

Moreover, Luongo added that similarly, during the prohibition era, alcohol became stronger and more potent, in order to evade law enforcement. “More potent forms of substances are just more efficient in a business model,” Luongo added. “They take up less space and storage, they weigh less, they sell for more money. And so producers, illicit producers, are also looking to evade detection, so smaller, more potent quantities are less likely to be seized.”

She added that drug seizures can also increase the risk of overdose by potentially removing trusted sources of illicit drug supply, promoting individuals to purchase illicit drugs from new and unknown sources, and exposing them to more risk.

In January 2023, the British Columbia government decriminalized the possession of a small amount of illicit drugs. Currently, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition is urging the B.C. government to implement an immediate increase in personal possession amounts under the decriminalization pilot, to reduce engagement with law enforcement and risk of overdose.

“The kind of resources that we’re currently directing towards these larger drug seizures, I think, would be much more valuable if directed towards things like health, housing, policies, and services that actually are verifiably going to improve public health and safety. Because, again, the more we direct resources towards enforcement does not alter consumer demand,” said Luongo.