“As safe as possible”: A qualitative study of opioid withdrawal and risk behavior among people who use illegal opioids

BACKGROUND: Opioid withdrawal is a regular occurrence among many people who use illicit opioids (PWUIO) that has also been shown to increase their willingness to engage in risk-involved behavior. The proliferation of fentanyl in the illicit opioid market may have amplified this relationship, potentially putting PWUIO at greater risk of negative health outcomes. Understanding the relationship between withdrawal and risk-involved behavior may also have important implications for the ways that problematic drug use is conceptualized, particularly in disease models of addiction, which position risk behavior as evidence of pathology that helps to justify ontological distinctions between addicts and non-addicts. Examining withdrawal, and its role in PWUIO’s willingness to engage in risk, may aid in the development of alternative theories of risk involvement and create discursive spaces for de-medicalizing and de-othering people who use illegal drugs.

METHODS: This article is based on 32 semi-structured interviews with PWUIO in the New York City area who also reported recent withdrawal experience. Interviews were conducted remotely between April and August 2022 and recorded for later transcription. Data were then coded and analyzed based on a combination of inductive and deductive coding strategies and informed by the literature.

RESULTS: Participants described a strong relationship between withdrawal and their willingness to engage in risk-involved behavior that was exacerbated by the proliferation of fentanyl. Yet, their descriptions did not align with narratives of risk as a product of bad decisions made by individuals. Rather, data demonstrated the substantial role of social and structural context, particularly drug policies like prohibition and criminalization, in the kinds of risks that PWUIO faced and their ability to respond to them.

CONCLUSIONS: Withdrawal should be taken more seriously both from an ethical perspective and as an important catalyst of risk behavior. However, theories that position activities taken to avoid withdrawal as irrational and as evidence of pathology are poorly aligned with the complexity of PWUIO’s actual lives. We recommend the use of less deterministic and less medicalized theories of risk that better account for differences between how people view the world, and for the role of socio-structural forces in the production of risk.

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Full citation:
Frank D, Elliott L, Cleland CM, Walters SM, Joudrey PJ, Russell DM, Meyerson BE, Bennett AS (2023).
“As safe as possible”: A qualitative study of opioid withdrawal and risk behavior among people who use illegal opioids
Harm Reduction Journal, 20 (158), 158. doi: 10.1186/s12954-023-00893-9. PMCID: PMC10605476.