Many people who inject and use drugs experience negative interactions with the police and, as a result, are over represented in criminal justice systems, prisons and compulsory drug treatment centres. This happens because in many countries, the production, trafficking and use of some drugs is illegal and police are tasked with enforcing the law. Harm reduction programmes at their core recognize that drug use has implications for individual and public health, and these harms must be reduced as a fundamental step towards ensuring the human right to health. Despite these policy and programmatic shifts, people who use and inject drugs frequently report being targeted and searched by police, as well as experiencing harassment, humiliation, extortion, violence and arbitrary detention at the hands of the police.
In many countries, research has documented that these types of police practices increase vulnerability of HIV acquisition and onwards transmission, and are not conducive to access and retention in care for HIV and other related health services for people who use and inject drugs. In recognition of this, the World Health Organization recommends the decriminalization of drug use and possession for personal use as a critical enabler for an effective HIV response. The police have a central role in creating supportive environments where harm reduction programmes can exist and that, by fulfilling this role and becoming a partner in harm reduction, both the police and the broader communities in which they serve benefit immeasurably.
Law enforcement must work in partnership with the community, including people who use drugs, in pursuit of creating a rights- and health-affirming environment. While protecting public health is not the primary function of the police, operating within a human rights framework that improve health and well-being is part of progressive and effective policing practice.