Beletsky9.14.15 — Amidst the current heroin abuse crisis, needle exchange, drug treatment and other prevention programs working with drug users are garnering overdue attention. Police can support the work of such programs, for example by identifying and referring potential clients. As a rule, however, the coordination between law and public health efforts is less seamless. A new report in the American Journal of Public Health offers stark evidence of police working at cross-purposes with syringe exchange and overdose prevention programs in Baltimore. 

“Baltimore is a city where the success of drug user outreach has extremely high stakes: it has one of the highest rates of drug use-related HIV, hepatitis and overdose among its large population of people who inject drugs,” explains Professor Leo Beletsky, lead author of the report, “Police Encounters Among Needle Exchange Clients in Baltimore.” 

“Clients of the city's needle exchange report frequent police contact as they enter or exit the program. Even more troublingly, this research documents confiscation of syringes and other prevention supplies the needle exchange distributes. Such police activities can deter drug users from accessing prevention programs and increase syringe sharing,” says Beletsky, a public health law expert who holds a joint appointment with Northeastern University's School of Law and Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

The research also found that young program clients of color reported disproportionate amount of police contact. These data have special salience in the context of Baltimore’s simmering tensions between police and the African-American community. Beletsky points out that this lack of coordination is occurring despite important policy efforts to promote access to safe injection supplies. Maryland law shields exchange clients from criminal penalties for possession of syringes and other injection supplies. The city's health and police departments have also formed an interagency agreement creating special enforcement protection zones around needle exchange sites. 

“Changing the law is sometimes necessary, but is often not sufficient," says Beletsky. “This research and similar findings from across the US and around the globe suggest that additional efforts like police training and management are necessary to ensure coordination between police and public health activities targeting drug users.”

The research appears in the September issue of the Journal, and its abstract is available at:

Beletsky's additional research on the relationship between policing and public health programs can be found here: 

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