The State of the Science in Opioid Policy Research

Published in: Drug and Alcohol Dependence (June 2020). doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108137

Posted on on July 07, 2020

by Megan S. Schuler, Sara E. Heins, Rosanna Smart, Beth Ann Griffin, David Powell, Elizabeth A. Stuart, Bryce Pardo, Sierra Smucker, Stephen W. Patrick, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Bradley D. Stein

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Characterize the state of the science in opioid policy research based on a literature review of opioid policy studies.


We conducted a scoping review of studies evaluating the impact of U.S. state-level and federal-level policies on opioid-related outcomes published in 2005–2018. We characterized: 1) state and federal policies evaluated, 2) opioid-related outcomes examined, and 3) study design and analytic methods (summarized overall and by policy category).


In total, 145 studies were reviewed (79% state-level policies, 21% federal-level policies) and classified with respect to 8 distinct policy categories and 7 outcome categories. The majority of studies evaluated policies related to prescription opioids (prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), opioid prescribing policies, federal regulation of prescription opioids, pain clinic laws) and considered policy impacts with respect to proximal outcomes (e.g., opioid prescribing behaviors). In total, only 29 (20% of studies) met each of three key criteria for rigorous design: analysis of longitudinal data with a comparison group design, adjustment for difference between policy-enacting and comparison states, and adjustment for potentially confounding co-occurring policies. These more rigorous studies were predominately published in 2017–2018 and primarily evaluated PDMPs, marijuana laws, treatment-related policies, and overdose prevention policies.


Our results indicated that study design rigor varied notably across policy categories, highlighting the need for broader adoption of rigorous methods in the opioid policy field. More evaluation studies are needed regarding overdose prevention policies and policies related to treatment access. Greater examination of distal outcomes and potential unintended consequences are also warranted.

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