11:04 AM

Ohio State faculty highlight research on opioid epidemic

Presentations detail different approaches to fighting the crisis

Drug users who buy opioids online through the “dark web” seek one particular quality in internet-market dealers – trustworthiness.

That key finding from research by sociologists at The Ohio State University may provide an opening for law enforcement to help reduce illegal online drug sales.

“Our research shows how you can take advantage of the reputation system to jeopardize market trust,” said Dana Haynie, professor of sociology and director of the Criminal Justice Research Center (CJRC) at Ohio State, who has helped lead the research.

“Strategies that reduce trust by targeting vendor reputations are most effective for dismantling drug networks.”

Haynie was one of three faculty members who presented at “Ohio’s Opiate Epidemic: Impacts and Innovations,” a recent event held at the Blackwell Center. The researchers talked about their different approaches to helping battle the opioid epidemic in Ohio and across the nation.

Harvey Miller, professor of geography, discussed research he is involved in that is examining social and neighborhood factors that may be barriers to recovery treatment for opiate addicts.

Michael Neblo, professor of political science, talked about his research in Ohio on how to use “deliberative democracy” to teach citizens about the crisis and reach consensus on how to best fight it.

The event was led off with a talk by journalist Sam Quinones, author of the book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is centered on the crisis in Ohio.

Quinones noted that Ohio is second only to West Virginia in the rate of death due to drug overdose.

Haynie has seen how online sales have helped fuel the crisis. Her team analyzed all 17,000 illicit drug transactions on one dark web site between January 2017 and February 2018. She said there was “explosive growth” in sales during that year.

Customers on the site are required to leave reviews of the vendors they buy from, Haynie said. If law enforcement can find a way to leave negative feedback on sellers, that could disrupt the site.

“Bad reviews are particularly damaging and can quickly drive a vendor out of business,” she said.

Miller has seen evidence of the local impact of the opioid crisis in his team’s research. They examined more than 11,000 opioid overdose events in Franklin County between 2008 and 2017. The data covers every overdose that resulted in an Emergency Medical Services response in that time period.

“It was very dramatic, the explosive growth we saw in overdoses in that time,” he said.

His team is looking at factors such as bus routes and sidewalks near where overdoses occur to see how far they are from treatment centers.

“One of the things we are doing is looking at the barriers to accessing opioid recovery centers in Franklin County,” Miller said.

In addition to the retrospective study, his team is conducting a prospective study that began last year, called Franklin County Opioid Crisis Activity Level (FOCAL).

Miller noted that opioid research like this requires a true team approach.

“We have collaborators across three colleges at Ohio State, along with other researchers and team members in the community,” he said.

Neblo is approaching the opioid crisis in Ohio from a different angle – how to get the public involved in finding and prioritizing solutions.

His study involved random groups of Ohioans selected to participate in a “deliberative democracy” exercise. Citizens took part online, where they received high-quality information about the opioid crisis in the state, reviewed 12 different actions that could fight the epidemic, and then decided how much of a fixed budget they wanted to spend on each.

“We found that people learned a lot about the opioid epidemic in our study. If you sit people down and provide them with high-quality background information, they become informed very quickly,” Neblo said.

Providing information also changed people’s opinion about the most important actions to fund.

The item that gained the most support from participants during deliberation – and which ended up as the top-ranked action for investment – involved creating recovery networks. These networks would integrate people in recovery into their

communities. The networks could include faith-based and family-based recovery strategies, as well as 12-step programs.

One encouraging finding from the study was how participating in this deliberative democracy process inspired citizens.

“They wanted to do something. They wanted to call their representatives, get involved in the community. Ninety-seven percent said it was important for democracy for citizens to be consulted like this,” Neblo said.

He and his team have received funding to repeat this study on a national level.

Some of the funding for the studies discussed came from the National Science Foundation for Haynie’s work; Ohio State’s Opioid Innovation Fund and Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA) for Miller’s work; and the Kettering Foundation for Neblo’s study.

The event was sponsored by CURA, the School of Communication, the CJRC, the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability, the Department of Sociology and the College of Arts and Sciences.