Collateral damage in the war on drugs: HIV risk behaviors among injection drug users
Objective: To determine whether two key War on Drugs policies, the criminalization of syringes and the disqualification of drug users from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, are associated with injection-related human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) risk behaviors among injection drug users (IDUs). Methods: IDUs were interviewed regarding HIV risk behaviors, drug use, and criminal activities in six San Francisco Bay Area communities in 1996 and followed through 1997 (n=1257). Multivariate analysis was conducted to examine the association between concern about arrest while carrying drug paraphernalia and injection-related risk behaviors. Regarding SSI, respondents were interviewed before (1996) and after (1997) drug and alcohol addicts were disqualified from SSI (n=88). Bivariate analysis was conducted comparing IDUs who lost SSI benefits with those who retained benefits. Results: Among our study sample, 32% of IDUs reported being concerned about possible arrest while carrying drug paraphernalia. In multivariate analysis, concerned IDUs were over one-and-a-half times more likely to share syringes than IDUs not concerned (adjusted odds ratio=1.74; 95% confidence interval =1.24, 2.44). Regarding SSI, 60% (53/88) of baseline SSI recipients had lost benefits by their follow-up interview. IDUs who lost benefits were more likely to participate in illegal activities (48 vs. 27%; P<0.05), more likely to share syringes (17 vs. 0%; P<0.05) and injected drugs on average more (43.8 vs. 36.4 per month; P<0.03) than those who retained benefits. Conclusions: These data suggest that War on Drugs policies which deny injection equipment and federal income support to IDUs also increase their risk for HIV infection, and should be reconsidered.