Harm reduction and law enforcement in Vietnam: influences on street policing
1 Nossal Institute for Global Health, The University of Melbourne, 4th Floor, 161 Barry Street, Carlton, VIC 3010, Australia
2 Melbourne School of Population Health, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
3 Centre for Law Enforcement and Public Health, Melbourne, Australia
Harm Reduction Journal 2012, 9:27 doi:10.1186/1477-7517-9-27Published: 9 July 2012
Background and rationale
The HIV epidemic in Vietnam has from its start been concentrated among injecting drug users. Vietnam instituted the 2006 HIV/AIDS Law which includes comprehensive harm reduction measures, but these are unevenly accepted and inadequately implemented. Ward police are a major determinant of risk for IDUs, required to participate in drug control practices (especially meeting quotas for detention centres) which impede support for harm reduction. We studied influences on ward level police regarding harm reduction in Hanoi to learn how to better target education and structural change.
After document review, we interviewed informants from government, NGOs, INGOs, multilateral agencies, and police, using semi-structured guides. Topics covered included perceptions of harm reduction and the police role in drug law enforcement, and harm reduction training and advocacy among police.
Police perceive conflicting responsibilities, but overwhelmingly see their responsibility as enforcing drug laws, identifying and knowing drug users, and selecting those for compulsory detention. Harm reduction training was very patchy, ward police not being seen as important to it; and understanding of harm reduction was limited, tending to reflect drug control priorities. Justification for methadone was as much crime prevention as HIV prevention.
Competing pressures on ward police create much anxiety, with performance measures based around drug control; recourse to detention resolves competing pressures more safely. There is much recognition of the importance of discretion, and much use of it to maintain good social order. Policy dissemination approaches within the law enforcement sector were inconsistent, with little communication about harm reduction programs or approaches, and an unfounded assumption that training at senior levels would naturally reach to the street.
Ward police have not been systematically included in harm reduction advocacy or training strategies to support or operationalise legalised harm reduction interventions. The practices of street police challenge harm reduction policies, entirely understandably given the competing pressures on them. For harm reduction to be effective in Vietnam, it is essential that the ambiguities and contradictions between laws to control HIV and to control drugs be resolved for the street-level police.