Police crackdowns on drug use lead to increases in HIV transmission. This assertion is supported by “Do Not Cross,” a just-released report from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
To avoid HIV, hepatitis, abcesses and other health problems, ideally an injection drug user should use a new, clean needle each time. But when people are afraid of being thrown in jail, they avoid carrying needles on their person, re-use them often, and hide them in dirty places—bushes, garbage cans—to avoid detection. They inject as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of getting caught in the act, often injuring themselves in the process. They can be forced to store their drugs in any available bodily orifice on approach of the cops, which is harmful and dangerous. In some cases, they may switch from smoking to injecting a drug like heroin, even though this is riskier, because it can done faster and requires less of the drug itself.
When people are displaced to random neighbourhoods as part of anti-drug legal strategies, they have less access to support services and clean needles, and they may introduce others to drug use and attendent harms who would not have otherwise been exposed.
And when drug users end up in jail, they suffer from a variety of HIV-related harm and risk, including “lack of access to clean syringes or sterilizing materials in prison, lack of access to information and education on HIV/AIDS, lack of reliable access to opioid substitution therapy, lack of access to condoms, failure to prevent sexual violence and coercion, and interruption of antiretroviral treatment.” The last point is an important one: HIV treatment is a form of HIV prevention, as a person on anti-HIV meds is less likely to transmit the virus to someone else.
Not all drug users are affected equally by police crackdowns. As Do Not Cross author Joanne Csete notes, “Those who have the most marginal housing, the lowest income and the least developed social networks will be most at risk.” Read the whole report here.