The effects of COVID and associated restrictions on interactions with law enforcement for people who who use drugs: Preliminary findings

Dr Shelley Walker1, Professor Paul Dietze1,2,3, Associate Professor Peter Higgs1,2,4, Associate Professor Joseph Doyle1,3,5,6, Professor Mark Stoove1,3, Dr Brendan Quinn1,3, Dr Bernadette Ward3, Dr Keith Sutton3, Mr Sione Crawford8, Professor Lisa Maher1,7

1Burnet Institute, Melbourne, Australia
2National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University, Melbourne, Australia
3Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
4La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
5St Vincents Hospital, Melbourne, Australia
6Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, Australia
7Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
8Harm Reduction Victoria, Melbourne, Australia


Physical distancing measures and restrictions on movement and gatherings to prevent COVID-19 transmission adversely affect people who use illicit drugs, particularly those whose drug use is most visible, such as people who are homeless or in unstable housing. Although some evidence suggests that people who use drugs have become incidental targets of law enforcement during COVID-19 lockdowns, limited studies have examined these impacts from the perspective of lived experience.


Approximately 75 participants from the Burnet Institute’s longitudinal cohort studies involving people who inject drugs and people who use methamphetamine are currently being recruited into this qualitative study. Data is being collected via face-to-face semi-structured interviews focused on experiences of COVID-19 and associated restrictions related to housing, income support, health service use, drug use and law enforcement interactions. Data will be analysed using Iterative Categorisation, an approach from the addictions field that supports thematic analysis, framework analysis, and content analysis.

Key Findings

We will present preliminary findings of participant experiences of interactions with law enforcement, particularly during Melbourne stage 4 lock down periods. Findings will focus on interactions with police, experiences of arrest and/or receiving fines or court notices related to breaching COVID-19 regulations, experiences of drug-related arrest, and/or experiences of police custody and/or prison.


Our study will be one of the first to provide a comprehensive account of the impacts of COVID-19 and associated restrictions on interactions with law enforcement for people who use drugs in Australia. Findings will inform policy and programs to manage and minimise unnecessary harms experienced by people who use drugs.


Shelley is and Early Career Researcher based at the Burnet Institute. She works across a number of qualitative research projects in the areas of justice health, alcohol and other drugs and international development. Shelley is passionate about human rights and social justice issues and the importance of giving voice to marginalised communities.


Dec 08 2021