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Study: law enforcement may be inhibiting work of harm reduction programs for people who use drugs

Needles at the Alaska AIDS Assistance Association syringe exchange in Anchorage.
Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media
File photo: syringes.

A new study led by N.C. State researchers suggests North Carolina law enforcement agencies may be inhibiting the work of harm reduction programs for people who use illegal drugs.

In 2016, North Carolina legalized service programs that allow people to exchange used needles and syringes and receive testing for infectious diseases. The law was passed in response to the opioid epidemic, and seeks to reduce fatal overdoses.

Brandon Morrissey was the lead researcher. He says the study found more than half of respondents had negative interactions with law enforcement in the prior year.

“Officers not being aware of the law, refuse to accept whatever documentation was given, confiscation of supplies, arrest for having the supplies,” he explained.

N.C. State professor Jennifer Carroll is a researcher on the paper.

“I think it's very fair to say that these actions are not in the spirit of the law,” she said.

Carroll says the law could also be changed to be clearer or to include broader legal protections for people who call 9-1-1 in the case of an overdose.

The study found variation across counties, and Black participants were more likely to have an officer doubt their documentation.

The paper calls for more training for officers and clearer guidance on the law.