What is Harm Reduction?

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Harm reduction is almost exactly what it sounds like. It is the idea that reducing the consequences of drug addiction and making it as safe as a dangerous practice can be is the only way to control drug abuse. People who are proponents of harm reduction believe that the current stance of punishment and criminalization is not working. People will continue to use drugs and alcohol and engage in other dangerous behaviors regardless of the legal consequences of doing so.

They also believe that drug addiction is a disease and people need to treat it as such. You would not put a person in jail for being diabetic so why should you put a person who is addicted there. In order to truly understand harm reduction, you first have to understand what the principle beliefs are, its methods, and the benefits of harm reduction.

What are the Principles of Harm Reduction?

The principles of harm reduction are relatively simple. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, the main supporters of harm reduction, the principle beliefs of harm reduction are:

Harm Reduction

Harm reduction works to lessen the negative consequences of drug abuse.

  • Do not attempt to lessen the very real consequences of drug use, instead educate the public and treat the illness as it occurs.
  • Abstinence is not always the key, social, community, medical, and lifestyle support are.
  • Understands that people will use drugs regardless and tries to minimize the harm that use does to the person, family, or community.
  • Asks for nonjudgmental treatment of drug addiction, fostering the belief that regardless of circumstance everyone deserves treatment and help with their addiction.
  • Believes in allowing addicts and former addicts a say in the policies and procedures used to treat them.
  • Believes that no one should be forced or coerced into drug treatment or jailed because of addiction.
  • Seeks to empower the addicts through choices and control over their own lives.
  • Believes in treatment regardless of race, religion, social background, economic status, and other factors.
  • Recognizes discrimination in economic status, gender, class, social isolation, race, and other inequalities to identify vulnerable populations.

All of these boil down to the fact that harm reduction believes in treating the addict, recognizing that addicts have the choice to use, and reducing the issues that come with using so addicts are comfortable seeking help when they are ready.

What Methods do People use in Harm Reduction?

Since a core belief in harm reduction is to reduce the harm that drugs and alcohol do to an individual or community, it is logical that they established programs to help with this endeavor.

According to the National Library of Medicine’s archived article “Does harm reduction programming make a difference in the lives of highly marginalized, at-risk drug users?,” the core beliefs of these programs are:

  • Be able to deliver services where people live, work, and very often engage in drug use.
  • Provide services based on what the user needs, who they are, and where they are.
  • Be user driven, create programs with the user’s needs and desires in mind.

Using these principles, they came up with these methods and programs for reducing the overall harm that drug use causes.

  • Provide mobile services to at risk individuals including medical vans that provide:
    • drug testing
    • sexually transmitted disease testing
    • HIV care and testing
    • gynecological services
    • vaccinations and minor health complaint resolution
    • overall health screenings
  • Drug safety lessons including how to inject safely, use safely, and guidance for treatment of addictions.
  • Personal safety training for reduction in drug related rape, prostitution, and trafficking injuries.
  • Hotlines for hard to reach clients.
  • Needle exchange to reduce needle sharing and HIV / Hepatitis strain transmission.
  • Support groups for different individuals and different drugs to build community understanding and peer support networks.
  • Early intervention for at risk populations such as HIV patients and other populations.
  • Case management and support, including housing support, drug treatment, mental illness counseling and medication management.
  • Drug safe houses for doing drugs in a safe medically supported environment.
  • Benefit assistance for those who need EBT, food assistance, and other government programs.

All of these programs are designed not to stop people from using drugs but to help them do so safely and in a manner that does not harm the community or their families. These programs reduce the need for violence associated with drug use and other criminal behaviors.

The Benefits of Harm Reduction

The benefits of harm reduction are widespread and not always obvious. Harm reduction gives people options that they would not ordinarily have when it comes to dangerous behaviors. It understands that people are going to engage in high risk behaviors regardless of the consequences. This high-risk behavior is inherently dangerous. By reducing the foreseeable consequences to this behavior, it reduces some of the negative aspects to the individual and community.

Each program has its own benefits but overall they seek to reduce the incidents of drug related crime, sickness, death, and damage. It does this not by condoning drug use or persecuting it but not judging those who choose to use. It provides safe environments and nonjudgmental clinics while encouraging drug treatment. People who are not being judged for what they choose to do are more likely to listen to potential treatments than those who feel persecuted. It seeks to offer a helping hand to those who want to quit and support for those who are in trouble. Overall harm reduction seeks to make sure addiction is treated like the illness it is rather than a criminal offense.