Two worlds colliding - or are we just on the same planet?

Greg Denham

former police officer, now the Research and Program developer, Law Enforcement and Health, Nossal Institute for Global Health

More recently many police are starting to recognise that their concerted efforts to eradicate the supply of illicit drugs are not always successful and these substances still find their way onto the street. There also still seems to be a strong demand for drugs and many people continue to use them despite the inherent risks and efforts to deter use.
Historically, the police approach to dealing with illicit drug use in the community has been aimed toward removing the more obvious ‘street drug scenes’. Crackdowns and similar more punitive ‘get tough’ approaches have been the focus of law enforcement strategies in a hope that the more obvious aspects of drug use, particularly public injecting, will be removed.
However as a public health response to the inherent risks associated with the use of drugs, in particular the spread of HIV and hepatitis C through sharing injecting equipment, strategies needed to be developed and implemented that minimise the immediate risks to the individual and the general community.
These strategies form the ‘harm reduction’ approach and include the provision of clean injecting equipment such as needles and syringes, methadone and condoms. Harm reduction is a realistic and pragmatic approach that has proven success in reducing the risk of infection of disease to the individual, community and police.
However, the growth of harm reduction as an effective public health response to the harms associated with injecting drug use and the focus of police efforts towards eradication have often led to ‘two worlds colliding’.
‘Harm reduction cannot, and will not, work without the active support and leadership from police.’
Researchers at all levels agree that for harm reduction strategies to succeed, the support and assistance of law enforcement is essential. Where police operations do not take into account the impact that they will have on harm reduction programs, or police disregard or are ambivalent to that impact, these programs will fail or experience significant problems. This will impact on the whole community. It is essential therefore that police and health collaborate to ensure effective delivery of services and work together to create an ‘enabling and supportive environment’ for harm reduction.
In many parts of the world there are now many good examples of where police and health agencies have established effective working relationships with shared goals and a vision of a safer, healthier community. Police that recognise the importance of effective relationships with health agencies have benefited from these alliances by increasing their resources, sharing their expertise and using problem-solving approaches to very complex issues.
There are many examples of how police can support harm reduction programs in a practical way. For example; police may refer a drug user to a health service rather than arrest; they may have a policy not conduct police patrols near needle exchanges, or they may decide not to seize clean injecting equipment from users when they conduct searches on the street.
It has often been said that ‘policing does not occur in a vacuum’ - police activities that support harm reduction also need the support and acceptance of senior police, government officials and the broader community. Police may have the unenviable job of being in a position where they have to continuously juggle community expectations as well as the law and harm reduction – not an easy thing to do.

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Pat O’Hare , UK
professor and honorary president of IHRA, International Harm Reduction Association
Jack A. Cole , USA
26-year veteran police officer who spent 14 of those years as an undercover narcotics officer
Greg Denham , Australia
former police officer, now the Research and Program developer, Law Enforcement and Health, Nossal Institute for Global Health
the International Harm Reduction Association
Jørgen Kjær , DK
formand for BrugerForeningen, foreningen for aktive stofbrugere
Peter Ege , DK
Jørgen Jepsen , DK
jurist, fhv. lektor i kriminologi og fhv. leder af Center for Rusmiddelforskning
Nils Christie , NO
professor, kriminolog
Liese Recke , DK
Kjeld G. Christensen , DK
Hans Jørgen Engbo , DK
jurist og fængselsinspektør
Evy Frantzsen , NO
dr. jur., kriminolog
Preben Brandt , DK
dr. med., speciallæge i psykiatri
Tine M. Nielsen , DK
Henrik Thiesen , DK
Michael Jourdan , DK
Nanna W. Gotfredsen , DK
cand. jur. og gadejurist
Kristian Andenæs , NO
professor, dr. philos, jurist
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