“It Ruined My Life”: The War on Drugs and its Impact in Puerto Rico

Ongoing results of studies concerning the United States War on Drugs uncover how policies have raised the incarceration rates of racial minorities for nonviolent, drug-related crimes, profoundly stigmatized drug users, and redirected resources from drug prevention and treatment to militarizing federal and local law enforcement. Yet, while some states consider shifting their punitive approach on drug use to one based on drug treatment and rehabilitation, nothing suggests that these policy shifts are being replicated in Puerto Rico.

Kirk Dombrowski, a principle investigator at the REACH Lab, recently published a research paper on how the War on Drugs is affecting people who inject drugs in rural Puerto Rico. The study, which was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, utilized data from 360 PWID residing in four rural towns in the mountainous area of central Puerto Rico.

Initially, 315 PWIDs were recruited using respondent-driven sampling (RDS) which collected data about risk practices and conducted HIV and HCV testing. During the second phase, 34 micro-ethnographic assays were conducted, in which 34 participants were randomly recruited from the first phase and included their ego networks in this phase. This ethnographic inquiry uncovered significant results regarding the effects of the War on Drugs on the local drug trade, drug availability, and injectors’ social networks.

Findings suggest that repressive policing has been ineffective in preventing drug distribution and use among those in our study. This type of law enforcement approach has resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of poor drug users in rural Puerto Rico, mainly for nonviolent, drug-related crimes. In addition, incarceration exposes PWID to a form of cruel and unusual punishment: having to quit heroin “cold turkey” while exposed to increased HIV/HCV risks within the prison environment. In turn, the War on Drugs not only diverts resources from treatment but also shapes treatment ideologies, punishing non-compliant patients.

This research paper concluded that shifting the emphasis from repression to treatment and rehabilitation is likely to have a positive impact on the health and overall quality of life of PWID and their communities. The study’s emphasis on effective and ethical intervention strategies provides important considerations for Puerto Rico in possibly transitioning out of harmful policies of the War on Drugs.


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