Are the Opioid Crisis and Murder Increases Linked?

As the opioid epidemic has shifted to illegal drugs, the violent underground market may explain the rise in murder totals in some cities in recent years, says criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis.

The U.S. murder total rose in 2015, 2016, and the first half of 2017. Meanwhile, an opioid epidemic has led to the deadliest drug overdose crisis in U.S. history, with nearly 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016. A criminal justice expert says that these two crises may be related, reports The connection isn’t obvious at first glance. Drug and opioid overdoses have been increasing for decades, while the increase in the murders has been going on for only a few years. For much of the drug epidemic, the big cause of the rise in overdose deaths was opioid painkillers. These opioids were first obtained legally, with a doctor prescribing them and a pharmacy dispensing the drugs. Recently, the opioid epidemic began to shift toward illicit drugs. Starting around 2011, opioid painkiller overdose deaths began to level off, and heroin overdose deaths began to increase. Then, starting in 2014, illicit fentanyl overdose deaths began to skyrocket.

It’s this transition to the illicit market that criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis says may have helped cause a rise in murders: Because illegal drug markets tend to be much more violent than legal drug markets, the greater use of illicit opioids came with more violence. “As demand for illicit drugs increases, people enter the underground drug market to purchase the drug,” Rosenfeld says. “Those underground markets tend to be relatively volatile and sometimes violent places.” In 2015, the white homicide victimization rate rose by 8.2 percent. Rosenfeld said, “It’s the largest single-year percentage increase in white homicides, with the exception of the 2001 terrorist attack, since the early 1990s.” He argues that the opioid epidemic can help explain the increase. Although the epidemic has spread to black communities, the crisis has hit white communities much harder.