Harm reduction includes policies, programs, and practices that aim to keep people safe and minimize death, disease, and injury from high-risk behavior. This especially pertains to psychoactive substance use. Harm reduction recognizes that high-risk behavior, like substance abuse, may continue despite the risks. Harm reduction involves a range of support services and strategies to enhance the knowledge, skills, resources, and supports for people to be safer and healthier. These services may help your child, parent, or neighbor.
Reducing the Risks
A range of services is available to prevent harm from substance abuse. Some examples include:
- Needle distribution and recovery programs that distribute sterile needles and other harm reduction supplies, recover used needles and other supplies and provide information and containers for their safe disposal
- Substitution therapies that substitute illegal heroin with legal, non-injection methadone or other prescribed opioids
- Take-home naloxone program that provides an antidote to opioids to reverse an overdose thereby preventing brain injury, due to depressed breathing, and death
- Supervised consumption facilities that help prevent overdose deaths and other harms by providing a safer, supervised environment for people using substances
- Outreach and education services that make contact with people who use substances to encourage safer behavior
- Peer support programs which are groups run and attended by people who use substances to improve their quality of life and to address gaps in services
- Impaired driving prevention campaigns that create awareness of the risks of driving under the influence of alcohol and other legal or illegal substances
Benefits of Harm Reduction
Harm reduction has many benefits for people who use substances, their families, and communities. Research shows harm reduction activities can:
- Reduce hepatitis and HIV
- Reduce overdose deaths and other early deaths among people who use substances
- Educate about safer sex and sexual health and increase condom use
- Reduce injection substance use in public places, and reduce the number of used needles in public
- Educate about safer injecting and smoking and reduce the frequency of use
- Reduce the sharing of needles and other substance use equipment
- Reduce crime and increase employment among people who use substances
- Increase referrals to treatment programs and health and social services
Principles of Harm Reduction
Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use. It’s also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.
It incorporates a spectrum of strategies from safer use to managed use and abstinence. Strategies meet drug users “where they’re at,” to address conditions of use along with the use itself. There is no universal definition or formula for implementing harm reduction. This stems from the demands that interventions and policies designed to serve drug users reflect specific individual and community needs. However, HRC considers the following principles central to harm reduction practice:
- Accepts, for better and or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them
- Understands drug use as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviors from severe abuse to total abstinence, and acknowledges that some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others
- Establishes quality of individual and community life and well-being–not necessarily cessation of all drug use–as the criteria for successful interventions and policies
- Calls for the non-judgmental, non-coercive provision of services and resources to people who use drugs and the communities in which they live in order to assist them in reducing attendant harm
- Ensures that drug users and those with a history of drug use routinely have a real voice in the creation of programs and policies designed to serve them
- Affirms drugs users themselves as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use, and seeks to empower users to share information and support each other in strategies which meet their actual conditions of use
- Recognizes that the realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination, and other social inequalities affect both people’s vulnerability to and capacity for effectively dealing with drug-related harm
- Does not attempt to minimize or ignore the real and tragic harm and danger associated with licit and illicit drug use
Frequently Asked Questions
Some people express concerns about harm reduction. Some of the more common concerns include the following questions:
- Does it make it easier for people to use substances and stop them from quitting? People who are addicted to substances may not want or be able to quit, or they may continue to relapse into substance use. Harm reduction reduces the risks of substance use including the spread of infections like hepatitis and HIV. Harm reduction creates opportunities for people to lead healthier lives.
- Does harm reduction encourage people to use substances? Research shows that harm reduction activities do not encourage substance use.
- Does it drain funding from treatment programs for substance dependence? Treatment programs for substance dependence are part of harm reduction. Specific harm reduction activities are cost-effective and prevent costly outcomes like hepatitis and HIV.
- Does it mean trying to legalize substances? Legalization is not part of harm reduction. Harm reduction applies to both legal and illegal substance use. For example, a high school organizes safe rides home after graduation because parents realize their teenagers may be drinking.
What you should take from all of this is that there a lot of people and agencies working to make addiction treatment more accessible and more effective. Ultimately though, the human will is at play here. If a person is not willing to enter treatment, no one can change that. You may even check the person into rehab only to discover he or she dropped out soon after. It takes a willing soul to have a change of heart.
Practicing Harm Reduction for Substance Abuse
The best way to practice harm reduction for substance abuse is to get a loved one treatment. Programs at Renaissance Recovery include: