Every day there is a new headline highlighting the devastating effects of the current opioid crisis on individuals and their communities – from record overdoses to widespread transmission of hepatitis C. This has started a dialogue, urging public officials to treat drug use as a medical issue rather than a criminal one. States across the U.S. are responding to this as a public health matter – passing 911 Good Samaritan and naloxone access laws, opening of syringe exchanges, and increasing access to Medication-Assisted Treatment. It seems that, now more than ever, we are amidst a shift in how society deals with problematic drug use.
So then why, in the midst of a public health crisis, are police around the United States confiscating clean syringes and naloxone from the most vulnerable drug users – the homeless? This may sound absurd, but across the United States there have been reports of law enforcement seizing clean syringes and naloxone from homeless drug users that were lawfully obtained at health service providers.
Imagine being a homeless intravenous drug user who’s trying their best to prevent the contraction of HIV or Hepatitis C. To get to the needle exchange, you first have to make arrangements so your possessions aren’t stolen, then you take public transit, make sure you get to the exchange on time, wait in line for services, and then trek back to your camp. You put in the effort to keep yourself healthy, only to have these same supplies confiscated by police a few hours later. Confiscation of your consumption equipment forces you to resort to sharing syringes and other hazardous consumption practices. The end result is increased risk of fatal overdose, HIV and hepatitis C transmission – all thanks to law enforcement improperly enforcing laws designed to protect drug users, not hurt them. It’s easy for people to blame drug users for their health issues, but it’s becoming even clearer that, like most of the enforcement of the failed drug war, often it is the police fueling these adverse consequences of drug use.
The role of police in addressing the opioid epidemic and its effects has been highly contested. While some agencies are getting behind harm reduction, many continue to see users as criminals who must be shamed if they have any hope to recover. These issues are pushed into the spotlight when we talk about homeless opiate users. Similar to users who are not homeless, this group is susceptible to criminal and health problems as a result of their use – but these harms are magnified because of their living situation. They are subject to interactions with law enforcement more frequently – especially in big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco where homeless encampments are frequently being torn down to make way for new high rises. They are also at higher risk for HIV, hepatitis C, and accidental overdose, while simultaneously having few financial resources to prevent these health issues on their own.
Consequently, research has shown that this group has benefitted greatly from reforms that have made syringes and naloxone more accessible and free of charge. But, when police confiscate these items in their routine interactions with the homeless, they actually discourage effective harm reduction practices and policies that minimize the health risks of drug use, leading to adverse health outcomes.
Police confiscation of these supplies is not only morally abhorrent, but directly related to increased overdoses and transmissions of infectious disease. This lesson was already learned in Vancouver back in 2003, where mass crackdown on homeless users and confiscation of their property (including clean syringes and naloxone) led to a “new wave of transmission of HIV and other blood-borne and sexually transmitted diseases as well as to increase the risk of complications from overdose, including death.”
Do we really want to repeat these mistakes in the midst of the one of the most serious drug-related public health crises? If we are really going to address these public health issues, protect our communities and save lives, we need the police to focus on properly enforcing harm reduction policies, not interfering with them in the name of the failed drug war.
Alexandra Olsen is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.
Photo via Matthew Zalewski / Wikipedia.