Uncommon and preventable: Perceptions of diversion of medication for opioid use disorder in jail

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Article, Peer-reviewed

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Introduction: Correctional officials often cite diversion of medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) treatment (e.g., buprenorphine) as a reason for not offering MOUD treatment in jails and prisons, but it is poorly understood whether these fears are justified. We aimed to understand staff perceptions of medication diversion from jail-based MOUD programs and the factors that contribute to and prevent diversion.

Methods: We conducted qualitative analyses of semi-structured in-depth interviews and focus groups performed in 2019-20 with 61 administrative, security, behavioral health, and clinical staff who implement MOUD programming in seven Massachusetts jails.

Results: Contrary to staff expectations, buprenorphine diversion was perceived to occur infrequently during MOUD program implementation. The MOUD program changed staff views of buprenorphine, i.e., as legitimate treatment instead of as illicit contraband. Also, the program was perceived to have disrupted the illicit buprenorphine market in jail and reduced related coercion. Proactive strategies were essential to prevent and respond to buprenorphine diversion. Key components of diversion prevention strategies included: staff who distinguished among different reasons for diversion; comprehensive and routinized but flexible dosing protocols; communication, education, and monitoring; patient involvement in assessing reasons for diversion; and written policies to adjudicate diversion consequences.

Conclusion: With appropriate protocols, buprenorphine diversion within correctional programs designed to provide MOUD treatment is perceived to be uncommon and preventable. Promising practices in program design help limit medication diversion and inform correctional officials and lawmakers as they consider whether and how to provide MOUD treatment in correctional settings.

Keywords: Buprenorphine; Criminal justice settings; Massachusetts Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (MassJCOIN); Medication diversion; Medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) treatment; Qualitative design.