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Police & HIV Programs

Listed below are some positive examples of health agencies – government, non-government – working in partnership with law enforcement agencies to reduce the incidence of HIV among key affected populations.  The information is presented in a variety of formats, including media articles, pod-casts, power-point presentations and academic articles.

Many of the programs are based on the principles of harm reduction (click here for IHRA’s definition in 11 languages); we have included a definition and some examples of how it relates to policing below.

All Key Affected Populations

Sex workers

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex

Men who have Sex with Men (MSM)

People who inject drugs (PWID)

What is harm reduction?

Harm reduction is a realistic and comprehensive human rights and public health approach that has successfully addressed not only drug-related harms, but other public health issues the world over. The particular success of harm reduction has been in reducing the spread of HIV, which can be transmitted through the sharing of contaminated injecting equipment.

Harm reduction programs have evolved over a long period, and have been extensively researched and evaluated. Harm reduction is not a ‘fad’, nor is it here to replace other approaches – it sits comfortably with supply and demand reduction strategies.

Harm reduction involves a range of approaches all aimed at reducing the harmful consequences of drug use for both individuals and for the general community, without necessarily stopping or reducing drug use – though aiming for abstinence from drug use is not incompatible with harm reduction goals.

Harm reduction services

Harm reduction services are provided to injecting drug users to help stop the spread of HIV. They include:

  • substitution therapy (methadone or buprenorphine)
  • clean injecting equipment (needle syringe exchange programs)
  • condom distribution

You may know of other harm reduction strategies that are applied to reduce the harm associated with alcohol, tobacco and prescribed medications.

Harm reduction and HIV

Harm reduction acknowledges that no method to eliminate drug use is entirely successful, and that HIV presents a more urgent and serious global threat than drug use itself. Without harm reduction interventions the potential for HIV to spread throughout the world – among drug injectors, and from them to others in the community – would be devastating.

Harm reduction in Australia

There is probably no better success story about how immensely successful harm reduction has proven to be in reducing the prevalence of HIV in a community than that experienced in Australia.  Australian HIV rates have been consistently low in the last 20 years since the introduction of harm reduction programs in the 1980’s.

For more information about the success of harm reduction in the prevention of HIV and other harms associated with drug use go to the website of the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA): http://www.ihra.net/

A collaborative response to harm reduction

For harm reduction to work effectively an ‘enabling environment’ is needed – that is, a whole of community approach must exist where harm reduction is supported by police and other agencies. It is important to note that harm reduction cannot, and will not, work without active support and leadership from police.

There is now greater awareness that the scope of the law enforcement role in addressing drug misuse needs to be more considered, and that in order to reduce the broader range of harms attributed to drug misuse police need to establish effective working relationships with agencies such as health departments and non-government organisations.

Law enforcement agencies are now in a unique position in that police play an important and active role in reducing the impact of drugs in the community through involvement in harm reduction approaches. Police can be extremely effective when they support and actively participate in harm reduction strategies.

Sharing knowledge and information

Police are aware of their responsibilities and implement policies and practices that help create an enabling environment. Police need to know how they can best support these initiatives that have been designed to address the harms associated with injecting drug use, in particular the spread of HIV.

It is also helpful for harm reduction program providers to understand the difficulties police experience when dealing with drug issues in their community. Often police are ‘caught in the middle’ with pressure from several sectors, including media, community and business groups, to remove the more visible aspects of the illicit drug market.

Police may also feel pressure to try and get their response right ‘one hundred percent of the time in one hundred percent of cases’ – which is impossible.