There has been an abundance of talk lately about programs like free needle exchange programs, naloxone training and distribution, and facilities for supervised drug consumption. These programs fall under a philosophy called harm reduction. Some other forms of harm reduction include seat belts in cars, speed limits, and wearing a helmet when you ride a bike. The latter harm reduction strategies don’t have the opposition that the former do, and I believe that is mostly due to the stigma surrounding substance use.
Harm reduction includes policies, practices and programs that aim to keep people safe and lower rates of death, disease, and injury from high risk behavior, including substance use. Harm reduction accepts that high risk behavior may continue despite the risks associated with it. Harm reduction, in the instance of substance use, is not meant to stop people from using drugs, but to make sure that the people who do, are able to do so more safely. Harm reduction involves meeting people where they are at. Harm reduction policies and programs have been shown to lower rates of Hepatitis and HIV, by educating users about the risks of needle sharing and reusing needles. They have lowered rates of overdose deaths by spreading information about naloxone and Narcan, as well as educating users on how to use their drugs in a safer manner. Studies have shown that with safe consumption facilities, there are lower rates of injection in public spaces as well as lower rates of improperly disposed needles in the communities surrounding the facilities.
Harm reduction policies also allow for the education of people who use drugs about safer usage habits. With this information, it allows people who use drugs to be able to make more informed decisions about their health and make better choices for themselves, which ultimately makes the whole community safer. Having a mutual trust between facilities providing this information and the community of people who use drugs is so important for recovery as well. Since this is a community who may not get medical attention as actively as the general population, it allows for people to learn about recovery options that are available for them and creates a place for them to feel comfortable talking about their drug use without the stigma normally attached to it. Studies have shown that people who go to safe consumption facilities are more likely to get into some type of recovery program.
Now, if there are so many positives to harm reduction, why is it so looked down upon by society? Many people worry that these types of policies and programs will make using drugs easier for people and will stop them from quitting. Some people also believe that harm reduction actually encourages people to use. However, both of these trains of thought have been disproven by studies. In places with harm reduction policies or facilities, substance use rates have not gone up, and more people have been shown to get into rehabilitation facilities. A major misconception about harm reduction is that it directly correlates with getting substances legalized. This is not the case. Harm reduction applies to both legal and illegal substances. For example, designated driver programs are a harm reduction strategy for the legal substance, alcohol. The main focus of harm reduction is about not discriminating against people who use drugs, and allowing them to live safer and healthier lives, not legalization of drugs.
I hope this explanation helps to clarify what harm reduction is, and why it is so important to support these policies so that we all can have safer and healthier communities!