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Harm Reduction

Harm reduction refers to a range of services and policies designed to lessen the negative consequences associated with drug use. Abstaining from drug use is not required for a harm reduction approach.

Harm reduction can be described as a strategy directed toward individuals or groups that aims to reduce the harms associated with certain behaviors. When applied to substance use, harm reduction accepts that drug use (both licit and illicit) in society exists/occurs and defines objectives as reducing adverse consequences. It emphasizes the measurement of health, social and economic outcomes, as opposed to the measurement of drug consumption

Harm reduction has evolved over time, from its initial identification in the 1980s, as an alternative to abstinence-only focused interventions for adults with substance use disorders. In addition, those individuals who were interested in reducing, but not eliminating, their use were excluded from programs that required abstinence.

The Main Principles of Harm Reduction:

  • Accepts, for better or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects, rather than to simply ignore or condemn them.
  • Understands drug use as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviors from severe use to total abstinence, and acknowledges that some ways of using drugs are 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 people who use drugs 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 people who use drugs themselves as the primary agents of reducing harms of their drug use, and seeks to empower them 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, part 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 that can be associated with illicit drug use

Sources: “Harm reduction: An approach to reducing risky health behaviours in adolescents” and National Harm Reduction Coalition