In the Republic of Georgia, there is one crime that is punishable with more prison time than rape or even murder: possession of more than one gram of heroin, regardless of intent.

29 Feb 2016

Georgia positions itself as a model for government reform and new thinking. We have one of the youngest prime ministers in the world and government buildings of glass to symbolize transparency and visible change. But on drugs, old-school punitive policies remain the norm. Starting in 2007, the government enacted a policy of wide-scale street sweeps, drug testing, crippling fines, and harsh sentences.

Each year, police in Georgia detain tens of thousands of people in the streets and subject them to urine drug tests. If this single test is positive (contrary to standard practice, no confirmatory test is used) a fine equaling twice the monthly salary of the average Georgian is imposed. Subsequent positive tests during a 12-month period can result in prison time.

Heroin -syringe -and -spoon

A new study  from the addiction research center Alternative Georgia takes a hard look at the impacts of this approach. They found that these punitive measures didn’t stop people from using drugs, in fact, 89 percent of people punished for drug use after positive urine tests returned to drugs immediately.

But the street sweeps did result in behavior change, though presumably not the kind authorities intended: drug users adopted risky practices to avoid being identified by the police. Many people switched from heroin to buprenorphine or amphetamines to evade standard the drug tests. These drugs are commonly used in a way that requires a group of injectors to collaborate, either because the drug is expensive or because a group of people is required to procure and cook the substance. In either instance, injection often happens with several people sharing a common container, filters, or large-volume syringes used for loading smaller syringes, increasing the risk of blood-borne infections.

Police crackdowns have also driven people who use drugs into their homes, where they more often inject alone to avoid detection, increasing their risk of dying from an overdose.

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