CDC: Opioid abuse costs $78 billion a year. Treatment cuts that.


“The most important reason to support treatment is to improve the well-being and social function of people with addiction disorders,” writes the co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. But “the economic value of crime reduction largely or totally offsets the costs of treatment.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the cost to the public sector of prescription opioid abuse, addiction and overdose response, combined with the cost of the related crime, is $23 billion a year. The cost to the private sector in terms of healthcare expenses and lost job productivity is another $55 billion. The total yearly economic burden of substance abuse is somewhere in the hundreds of billions.

Those costs are skyrocketing. Around 80,000 Americans are behind bars right now due to opioid-related crime. Add to that the climate of threat that comes from knowing that substance abuse and crime go hand in hand. Researchers estimate that people are inclined to spend 100 times the actual average losses in order to avoid an armed robbery.

Yet spending 100 times as much on law enforcement won’t reduce the robbery rate. According to Emory University, however, spending 10 percent more on treatment would reduce the robbery rate by around 3 percent.

What’s the most effective treatment for opioid addiction?

According to the New England Comparative Effectiveness Public Advisory Council, the most cost-effective way to treat opioid abuse and addiction is a combination of counseling and a prescription to reduce cravings, such as buprenorphine or methadone. When this is used, the Council found, it substantially cuts the cost to society. For example, if the New England states expanded the number of opioid-dependent people it provides treatment for by 25 percent, the Council estimates they could save $1.3 billion.

Overall, the ratio appears to be three dollars saved in crime reduction for every one dollar spent on treatment. In fact, the intervention saves more in crime-related costs than it does in healthcare expenditures.

Economists from Texas A&M and Montana State Universities found that opening a single new treatment facility in a county lowers both crime and the number of drug-related deaths. How much does it reduce crime? An estimated $4.2 million per year — four times the cost of such a facility.

The reason policymakers avoid spending money effectively — on treatment — is probably stigma. That’s short-sighted. The tough-on-crime policies of the War on Drugs have never been shown to reduce drug abuse — but treatment has been shown to reduce drug addiction and its associated costs.

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