“It Ruined My Life”: The effects of the War on Drugs on people who inject drugs (PWID) in rural Puerto Rico

R. Abadie, C. Gelpi-Acosta, C. Davila, A. Rivera, M. Welch-Lazoritz, K. Dombrowski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)121-127
Number of pages7
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
StatePublished - Jan 2018


  • Drug Policy
  • HIV/HCV Risk
  • PWID
  • Puerto Rico
  • War on Drugs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health Policy


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