November 30, 2021

Checking Arrest Warrants Undermines the Goal of Post-Overdose Outreach Visits

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To better engage overdose survivors and remove barriers to treatment, research suggests outreach programs consider limiting the practice.

The Bottom Line

Checking arrest warrants prior to post-overdose outreach visits creates unintended barriers that undermine the goal of engaging overdose survivors. Outreach programs should consider limiting the practice.


Surviving an overdose is a key risk factor for experiencing another overdose, either nonfatal or fatal. In Massachusetts, post-overdose outreach programs have emerged to engage people who recently overdosed, and their families, in harm reduction and treatment to help prevent future overdoses. The outreach teams often include police officers, outreach workers, and social workers. Previous data analyses have shown that many of these teams perform warrant checks on the people who overdosed prior to doing post-overdose outreach. Given this process, the team of researchers, led by Boston Medical Center’s Alexander Walley, MD, MSc, and Marco Tori, MD, wanted to examine how the practice of checking for outstanding warrants impacts post-overdose outreach efforts and what this could mean for overdose survivors.

Study Objective

Determine if checking warrants prior to doing post-overdose outreach has an impact on the goals of this harm-reduction approach.

The Details

The study team analyzed a 2019 statewide survey of post-overdose outreach programs in Massachusetts to learn about how they handle warrants in their program. They also examined interviews with members of post-overdose outreach teams, including public health officials and police officers, to understand the nuances of checking for warrants after someone experiences an overdose.


More than half (57%) of the post-overdose outreach programs in Massachusetts perform warrant checks before going on an outreach visit. They do not have a one-size-fits-all approach for checking warrants or how they do outreach. The ways in which the police and outreach teams used warrant information varied, from ignoring the warrant to arresting the overdose survivor.

As a result of obtaining warrant information, data show that police have a lot of power in deciding what to do, and the warrant could be used to coerce an overdose survivor. The researchers did not identify a reason to require checking for warrants prior to the outreach visit.

Pull Quote

“Police have important roles in the overdose crisis, but that role may not need to include checking for warrants after someone overdoses or being involved on the post-overdose harm-reduction outreach team. These are important community programs, and we want to remove barriers that may impact the ability to engage these individuals and prevent future overdoses.”


Tori ME, Cummins E, Beletsky L, Schoenberger SF, Lambert AM, Yan S, Carroll JJ, Formica SW, Green TC, Apsler R, Xuan Z, Walley AY (2021). “Warrant checking practices by post-overdose outreach programs in Massachusetts: A mixed-methods study.” International Journal of Drug Policy.

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About the Author

Jenny Eriksen Leary

Jenny is a former associate director of media relations at Boston Medical Center and has more than 15 years of experience in healthcare communications and public relations.

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