In Their Own Voices: Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Addiction, Treatment and Criminal Justice Among People who Inject Drugs in Ukraine

Drugs (Abingdon Engl). 2016;23(2):163-175. doi: 10.3109/09687637.2015.1127327. Epub 2016 Feb 16.


Aims: To understand how perceived law enforcement policies and practices contribute to the low rates of utilization of opioid agonist therapies (OAT) among people who inject drugs (PWIDs) in Ukraine.

Methods: Qualitative data from 25 focus groups (FGs) with 199 opioid-dependent PWIDs in Ukraine examined domains related to lived or learned experiences with OAT, police, arrest, incarceration, and criminal activity were analyzed using grounded theory principles.

Findings: Most participants were male (66%), in their late 30s, and previously incarcerated (85%) mainly for drug-related activities. When imprisoned, PWIDs perceived themselves as being "addiction-free". After prison-release, the confluence of police surveillance, societal stress contributed to participants' drug use relapse, perpetuating a cycle of searching for money and drugs, followed by re-arrest and re-incarceration. Fear of police and arrest both facilitated OAT entry and simultaneously contributed to avoiding OAT since system-level requirements identified OAT clients as targets for police harassment. OAT represents an evidence-based option to 'break the cycle', however, law enforcement practices still thwart OAT capacity to improve individual and public health.

Conclusion: In the absence of structural changes in law enforcement policies and practices in Ukraine, PWIDs will continue to avoid OAT and perpetuate the addiction cycle with high imprisonment rates.

Keywords: Addiction; Ukraine; addiction trajectories; opioid agonist treatment; opioid substitution treatment; people who inject drugs; police harassment; qualitative research.