Opioids, Race, and Drug Enforcement: Exploring Local Relationships Between Neighborhood Context and Black–White Opioid-Related Possession Arrests

Date01 April 2021
Published date01 April 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17KtXw1cXMZ4Rg/input 911415CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420911415Criminal Justice Policy ReviewDonnelly et al.
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(3) 219 –244
Opioids, Race, and Drug
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
Enforcement: Exploring
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420911415
Local Relationships Between
Neighborhood Context and
Black–White Opioid-Related
Possession Arrests
Ellen A. Donnelly1 , Jascha Wagner1,
Madeline Stenger1, Hannah G. Cortina1,
Daniel J. O’Connell1, and Tammy L. Anderson1
Opioid abuse has redefined drug problems in communities and shifted police activities
to redress substance use. Changing neighborhood context around opioid issues may
affect arrests and racial disparities in their imposition. This study presents a spatial
analysis of arrests involving Blacks and Whites for possession of heroin, synthetic
narcotics, and opium offenses. We identify the ecological conditions associated with
opioid-related arrests using geographically weighted regression (GWR) methods
that illuminate local patterns by allowing coefficients to vary across space. GWR
models reveal spatial and racial differences in opioid-related possession arrest rates.
Calls for police service for overdoses increase White arrests in more advantaged,
rural communities. Economic disadvantage and racial diversity in neighborhoods
more strongly elevate possession arrest rates among Blacks relative to Whites.
Overdose calls predict Black arrests in poorer urban areas. Findings underscore
police responsiveness to opioid problems and Black–White differences in how opioid
users interact with the criminal justice system.
drug enforcement, race, spatial analysis, policy mapping, opioids
1University of Delaware, Newark, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ellen A. Donnelly, Center for Drug & Health Studies, Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice,
University of Delaware, 18 Amstel Avenue, Newark, DE 19716, USA.
Email: done@udel.edu

Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(3)
Drug enforcement has long been marked by problems of racial disparity (Alexander,
2010; Lynch, 2012; Mauer, 1999; Tonry, 1994). Since the beginning of the War on
Drugs, Blacks and Latinos disproportionately face arrests for drug possession and
dealing offenses relative to their representation in the general population (Provine,
2011). Despite declining crime and incarceration rates (Kaeble & Cowhig, 2018), dis-
parities continue in criminal processing for drug crimes. About a quarter of all drug
arrests (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2018) and almost a third of defendants sen-
tenced to prison for drug possession alone involve Blacks (Carson, 2018). Because
arrests loosely correspond with drug involvement among individuals (Johnston et al.,
2018; Mitchell & Caudy, 2015), scholarship looks for ecological patterns of arrests
and contributors to disparities within neighborhoods (Beckett et al., 2006; Gaston,
2019; Omori, 2017).
Opioid abuse in the past decade has transformed drug interdiction efforts and pri-
orities in addressing substance abuse within communities (K. D. Wagner et al., 2015),
giving scholars a reason to reexamine racial disparities among drug arrests. Police
departments increasingly serve as first responders to overdose incidents (Davis et al.,
2015; Pearlman, 2016) and use their powers to divert people struggling with opioid
addiction into treatment (Green et al., 2013; Purviance et al., 2017). Opioid users argu-
ably differ from other drug users in the past, as heroin and prescription opioid users are
older, more female, and more White as well as live in more rural areas (Jalal et al.,
2018; Keyes et al., 2014; Lankenau et al., 2012). By implication, police officers may
be coming into contact with drug users residing in different communities than those
historically policed for drug offenses. Hence, we seek to provide a diagnostic of
emerging opioid-related arrest patterns and their potential sources under these differ-
ent conditions of opioid abuse, rather than test for changes in policing practices
Research has not yet examined the ecological conditions that shape opioid-related
possession arrests and racial disparities in their imposition. Scholars have traditionally
identified economic disadvantage and racial discrimination as the main drivers of dis-
parate drug arrest patterns. Economic disadvantage can create disparities, as limited
means and resources encourage the sale or use of illegal substances in the most
deprived communities (Sampson & Wilson, 1995). Due to a close relationship between
socioeconomic inequality and segregation (Peterson & Krivo, 2010), racial differ-
ences in arrests thus reflect the disparate impact of socioeconomic stratification on
communities of color (Engel et al., 2012). Conversely, prejudice, bias, and perceptions
of threat among Whites cause oversurveillance and overpolicing of non-Whites
(Unnever & Gabbidon, 2011). Disparities then emerge from discriminatory drug
enforcement rather than racial differences in drug involvement or the presence of drug
market activities in communities (Tonry & Melewski, 2008). Studies of drug arrests in
major U.S. cities provide empirical support for the roles of economic disadvantage
(Parker & Maggard, 2005) and racial discrimination (Beckett et al., 2005, 2006;
Gaston, 2019; Omori, 2017) in shaping arrest disparities.
The purpose of this study is to identify the social conditions contributing to race-
specific opioid-related possession arrest rates in communities across the State of

Donnelly et al.
Delaware. We define opioid-related arrests as those involving the illegal possession
of heroin, synthetic narcotics, and other opium derivatives. We evaluate local differ-
ences in the contextual drivers of opioid-related possession arrests between Whites
and Blacks through a spatial analysis of block groups. We focus on the roles of eco-
nomic disadvantage and racial composition of communities in forging arrest pat-
terns. We also examine the relationship between calls for police service for overdoses
and drug arrests to analyze how drug enforcement responds to drug problems within
Our study detects spatial patterns in opioid-related possession arrests by relying on
a statistical method called geographically weighted regression (GWR). The approach
allows us to test whether opioid-related arrest patterns are equally distributed across
neighborhoods and, more importantly, whether the relationships between environmen-
tal conditions and arrests vary by race and space. In turn, GWR yields a more nuanced
understanding of the sources of Black–White differences in arrest trends across a
larger, heterogeneous geographic area (i.e., the entire State of Delaware). We contrib-
ute to scholarship by then (a) evaluating traditional environmental sources in contrib-
uting to opioid-related arrest patterns, (b) examining local drug arrest outcomes in and
outside of urban centers, and (c) illuminating emerging disparities in the law enforce-
ment of opioid-related possession offenses. Our study concludes with directions for
policing in response to opioid problems.
The Opioid Crisis and Policing Responses in Communities
In recent years, opioid abuse has transformed the context of drug enforcement. Since
1999, prescriptions for opioid painkillers (e.g., natural, semisynthetic opioids, metha-
done, and other synthetic opioids) have grown fourfold (Rudd et al., 2016). On a given
day, approximately 2.1 million Americans suffer from opioid abuse disorders (Volkow,
2014). Heroin use is also rising (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018), as more than
two thirds of heroin users report using prescription opioids as their first substance of
abuse (Cicero et al., 2014).
The demographic profiles of heroin and opioid users have likewise changed during
this period (Lankenau et al., 2012). More than 90% of persons using heroin within the
last decade are White compared with about 50% of heroin users in the 1970s (Cicero
et al., 2014). More women and older people are likely to abuse opioids and fatally
overdose (Jalal et al., 2018). Opioid-related problems are not restricted to urban cen-
ters, as rural communities also face some of the greatest overdose death rates in the
country (Keyes et al., 2014).
Police departments have since taken action to reduce opioid problems (Biehl,
2018). Police officers often serve as first responders to overdose incidents (Rando
et al., 2015), especially in rural areas where emergency services may be more remote
(Davis et al., 2015). Increasingly, police officers receive training for responding to
possible overdoses and administering naloxone to reverse the deadly effects of
blocked opioid receptors (Green et al., 2013). The Police Assisted Addiction and
Recovery Initiatives (PAARI, 2019) have swept the country, involving nearly 400

Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(3)
police departments in 32 different states. These initiatives feature nonarrest treatment
options for select persons or diversionary programs once an opioid user has been
arrested (Police Executive Research Forum, 2017). The public has likewise accepted
a greater role of law enforcement in addressing opioid-related problems. K. D.
Wagner et al. (2015) report drug users called on police 50% of the time when an
overdose was occurring, and expressed a...

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