Theses Master's

The Health Consequences of Policing for People Who Use Drugs

Atlas, Sara

Although drug prohibition was a direct result of racism and xenophobia, the United States maintains the view that punishment and criminalization are the solution to substance use and substance use disorders (SUDs). As a result, communities of color are hyper-policed and experience disproportionate brutality, particularly for individuals who use drugs. Policing is not only associated with worse health outcomes, but actively hinders people who use drugs from accessing overdose prevention resources and other harm reduction services. Crisis intervention teams aim to improve interactions between people experiencing crises and the police, but there are mixed results regarding their efficacy. Furthermore, they do not fundamentally address the root causes of substance use, nor do they acknowledge the negative effects of policing on the health of this group. Ultimately, involving the police in crisis intervention reinforces the punitive system that is maintained through brutality and incarceration, neither of which come from a health-oriented framework. To maximize the health, safety, and dignity of people who use drugs, it is necessary to re-evaluate the need for police to serve as the default first responders for behavioral health and substance use crises. This narrative review explores the relationship between the war on drugs, policing, and the health of the policed, and recommends the expansion of crisis intervention models that do not involve the police.


More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Prins, Seth Jacob
M.P.H., Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University
Published Here
April 5, 2021


Key words: policing, law enforcement, substance use disorder, harm reduction, crisis intervention, war on drugs, people who use drugs