Using thematic analysis, Kerr and colleagues document the experiences of policing among people who inject drugs in Bangkok and examine how interactions with police can affect drug-using behaviors and health care access.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Despite Thailand's commitment to treating people who use drugs as “patients” not “criminals,” Thai authorities continue to emphasize criminal law enforcement for drug control. In 2003, Thailand's drug war received international criticism due to extensive human rights violations. However, few studies have since investigated the impact of policing on drug-using populations. Therefore, we sought to examine experiences with policing among people who inject drugs (PWID) in Bangkok, Thailand, between 2008 and 2012.
Methods and Findings
Between July 2011 and June 2012, semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted with 42 community-recruited PWID participating in the Mitsampan Community Research Project in Bangkok. Interviews explored PWID's encounters with police during the past three years. Audio-recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim, and a thematic analysis was conducted to document the character of PWID's experiences with police. Respondents indicated that policing activities had noticeably intensified since rapid urine toxicology screening became available to police. Respondents reported various forms of police misconduct, including false accusations, coercion of confessions, excessive use of force, and extortion of money. However, respondents were reluctant to report misconduct to the authorities in the face of social and structural barriers to seeking justice. Respondents' strategies to avoid police impeded access to health care and facilitated transitions towards the misuse of prescribed pharmaceuticals. The study's limitations relate to the transferability of the findings, including the potential biases associated with the small convenience sample.
This study suggests that policing in Bangkok has involved injustices, human rights abuses, and corruption, and policing practices in this setting appeared to have increased PWID's vulnerability to poor health through various pathways. Novel to this study are findings pertaining to the use of urine drug testing by police, which highlight the potential for widespread abuse of this emerging technology. These findings raise concern about ongoing policing practices in this setting.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
In many countries, the dominant strategy used to control illegal drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine is criminal law enforcement, a strategy that sometimes results in human rights abuses such as ill-treatment by police, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention. Moreover, growing evidence suggests that aggressive policing of illicit drug use can have adverse public-health consequences. For example, the fear engendered by intensive policing may cause people who inject drugs (PWID) to avoid services such as needle exchanges, thereby contributing to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. One country with major epidemics of illicit drug use and of HIV/AIDS among PWID is Thailand. Although Thailand reclassified drug users as “patients” instead of “criminals” in 2002, possession and consumption of illicit drugs remain criminal offenses. The 2002 legislation also created a system of compulsory drug detention centers, most of which lack evidence-based addiction treatment services. In 2003, the Thai government launched a campaign to suppress drug trafficking and to enrol 300,000 people who use drugs into treatment. This campaign received international criticism because it involved extensive human rights violations, including more than 2,800 extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and dealers.
Why Was This Study Done?
Drug-related arrests and compulsory detention of drug users are increasing in Thailand but what is the impact of current policing practices on drug users and on public health? In this qualitative study (a study that aims for an in-depth understanding of human behavior), the researchers use thematic analysis informed by the Rhodes' Risk Environment Framework to document the social and structural factors that led to encounters with the police among PWID in Bangkok between 2008 and 2012, the policing tactics employed during these encounters, and the associated health consequences of these encounters. The Risk Environment Framework posits that a range of social, political, economic, and physical environmental factors interact with each other and shape the production of drug-related harm.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Between July 2011 and June 2012, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with a convenience sample (a non-random sample from a nearby population) of 42 participants in the Mitsampan Community Research Project, an investigation of drug-using behavior, health care access, and drug-related harms among PWID in Bangkok. Respondents reported that policing activities had intensified since rapid urine toxicology screening became widely available and since the initiation of a crackdown on drug users in 2011. They described various forms of violence and misconduct that they had experienced during confrontations with police, including false accusations, degrading stop and search procedures, and excessive use of force. Urine drug testing was identified as a key tool used by the police, with some respondents describing how police caused unnecessary humiliation by requesting urine samples in public places. It was also reported that the police used positive test results as a means of extortion. Finally, some respondents reported feeling powerless in relation to the police and cited fear of retaliation as an important barrier to obtaining redress for police corruption. Others reported that they had adopted strategies to avoid the police such as staying indoors, a strategy likely to impede access to health care, or changing their drug-using behavior by, for example, injecting midazolam rather than methamphetamine, a practice associated with an increased risk of injection-related complications.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that the policing of PWID in Bangkok between 2008 and 2012 involved injustices, human rights abuses, and corruption and highlight the potential for widespread misuse of urine drug testing. Moreover, they suggest that policing practices in this setting may have increased the vulnerability of PWID to poor health by impeding their access to health care and by increasing the occurrence of risky drug-using behaviors. Because this study involved a small convenience sample of PWID, these findings may not be generalizable to other areas of Bangkok or Thailand and do not indicate whether police misconduct and corruption is highly prevalent across the all police departments in Bangkok. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that multilevel structural changes and interventions are needed to mitigate the harm associated with policing of illicit drug use in Bangkok. These changes will need to ensure full accountability for police misconduct and access to legal services for victims of this misconduct. They will also need to include ethical guidelines for urine drug testing and the reform of policies that promote repressive policing and compulsory detention.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001570.
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine
Perspective by Burris and Koester
Human Rights Watch, a global organization dedicated to defending and protecting human rights, has information about drug policy and human rights, which includes information on Thailand
The Global Commission on Drug Policy published a report in June 2012 entitled “The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS: How the Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global Pandemic” (available in several languages)
The Global Commission on HIV and the Law published a report in July 2012 entitled “HIV and the Law: Risk, Rights and Health” (available in several languages), the Open Society Foundations have prepared a briefing on this report
More information about the Mitsampan Community Research Project is available