Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in final edited form as: Int J Drug Policy. 2018 January ; 51: 121–127.




Published by Elsevier. "Received 28 February 2017, Revised 12 April 2017, Accepted 19 June 2017, Available online 14 July 2017."

Used by permission.


Background—The War on Drugs has raised the incarceration rates of racial minorities for non-violent 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 to drug use, to one based on drug treatment and rehabilitation, nothing suggests that these policy shifts are being replicated in Puerto Rico.

Methods—This paper utilizes data from 360 PWID residing in four rural towns in the mountainous area of central Puerto Rico. We initially recruited 315 PWID using respondent-driven sampling (RDS) and collected data about risk practices and conducted HIV and HCV testing. During a second phase, we conducted 34 micro-ethnographic assays, in which we randomly recruited 34 participants from the first phase and included their ego networks in this phase. Our ethnographic inquiry produced significant data regarding the effects of the war on drugs on the local drug trade, drug availability, and injectors’ social networks.

Results—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, and mainly for nonviolent drug-related crimes. In addition, incarceration exposes PWID to a form of a cruel and unusual punishment: having to quit heroin “cold turkey” while the prison environment also represents a HIV/HCV risk. In turn, the war on drugs not only diverts resources from treatment but also shapes treatment ideologies, punishing non-compliant patients.

Conclusion—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.