What is Harm Reduction and Does it Work?
What is Harm Reduction?
Harm reduction is both a set of general principles used to change and enforce political policies concerning the way that societies respond to drug problems and, a belief system that encompasses the specific types of intervention, such as needle and syringe programs and methadone treatment, in order to reduce risks to drug users.
Harm Reduction Principles
Harm reduction is a wide range of strategies, such as safer use, to managed use (moderation), to abstinence in order to meet drug users “where they’re at,” that address conditions of drug use as well as the use, itself. And, because harm reduction calls for specific interventions and policies to be designed to serve drug users, specific individual, and community needs, there is no universal formula for implementing harm reduction practices.
Although there is no universal set of Harm Reduction tactics, the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) considers the following principles central to harm reduction practice:
- Accepts that legal 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 that drug use is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a spectrum 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.
What is Harm Reduction and Does it Work?
Proponents of harm reduction argue that it is a much better and more effective approach to drug use than the war on drugs has been.
As far as whether harm reduction strategies work, it depends on what you mean by ‘work.’ When it comes to reducing the spread of diseases such as HIV, then yes, harm reduction works. Having clean needle exchanges, for one, ensures that IV drug users have access to clean needles and are therefore less likely to share needles with others.
When it comes to dependence and addiction rates, harm reduction isn’t a solution in itself. One of the main concerns regarding this approach is that it may enable drug use and keep people ‘stuck’ in a pattern of addiction. Those who oppose harm reduction strategies argue that it can prevent addicts from reaching that level of desperation – ‘hitting a rock bottom’ – that would otherwise motivate them to get help. One of the strongest examples is the methadone clinic.
However, most harm reduction programs offer education and information about comprehensive treatment options. Furthermore, by helping drug users to stay healthier than they otherwise would, harm reduction helps people stay alive. They give people a chance to get help, and they preserve life. And at the end of the day, that is the whole point. It is all about helping the most vulnerable people get the care they deserve.
If you are struggling with substance abuse or drug dependence or addiction, there is a viable alternative to trying to use in moderation. Recovery from addiction is possible and we can help. Call toll-free 1-800-777-9588 to speak with an Addiction Specialist directly. We are available around the clock to answer your questions.