Ethical dilemmas created by the criminalization of status behaviors: case examples from ethnographic field research with injection drug users

Health Educ Behav. 2002 Feb;29(1):30-42. doi: 10.1177/109019810202900105.


The criminalization of behaviors such as the ingestion of certain mood-altering drugs creates ethical dilemmas for researchers studying those behaviors. The Syringe Access, Use, and Discard (SAUD) project is designed to uncover microcontextual factors that influence HIV and hepatitis risk behaviors of injection drug users. The article presents seven ethical dilemmas encountered using ethnographic methods: issues involving syringe replacement at injection locales, risks of participants' arrest, potential disruptions in participants' supply routes, risks of research staff arrest, threats to the protection of confidentiality, issues surrounding informed consent in working with addicts, and the confiscation of potentially incriminating information by police. The article concludes with a discussion of the limitations of traditional ethical frameworks, such as utilitarianism, for resolving these dilemmas and recommends instead improving public health professionals' capacity for practical reasoning (phronesis) through the greater use of case studies in public health curricula.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • Confidentiality
  • Crime*
  • Ethics*
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic*
  • HIV Infections / ethnology
  • HIV Infections / etiology
  • Health Services Research / standards*
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • Motivation
  • Public Health*
  • Risk-Taking
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / complications
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / ethnology*
  • Syringes
  • United States