What Does “Harm Reduction” Really Look Like?

What do you think when you hear the term harm reduction? Many people envision needle exchange sites in places like Vancouver’s downtown eastside. However, harm reduction applies to many issues outside of drug and alcohol abuse. Originally, harm reduction was a concept developed in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Harm Reduction can be represented in many ways. For example, offering safe injection sites to reduce frequency of drug overdoses, providing condoms to reduce sexually transmitted infections, and reducing salt content in our food to lower blood pressure. The list goes on. Isn’t this what much of health is about? Reducing harm and preventing future problems.

What is Harm Reduction?

In addiction treatment, commonly known harm reduction methods include needle exchanges and safe injection sites. Many criticisms surround this group of practices. We often hear things like “these programs don’t help addicts achieve recovery or abstinence” or “harm reduction encourages individuals to experiment with and maintain drug use”. Would it surprise you that other common programs such as “abstinence-based programs” are also technically harm reduction methods? It’s true. How so? Because abstinence-based programs are also concerned in reducing harms to one self, just through different means. In fact, harm reduction shares principles very similar to other commonly used addiction treatment programs: individualism, inclusion, pragmatism, and emancipation.

Harm Reduction focuses on Human Rights and the Individual

A defining feature of Harm Reduction is its focus on human rights in individual drug use and national drug law and policy. It’s a human rights-based approach that directly opposes the Moral Model of addiction and, as a result, dismisses the Medical Model. Harm Reduction aims to lower vulnerability and risky behaviours associated with alcohol and drug use and a broad complex of personal and social factors underly people’s predispositions to risk. Its intentions are to improve public health, improve ‘public interest’, and employ programs that allow users to be free and responsible citizens. Treating drug users as sovereign citizens helps them internalize self control, autonomy, rationality, and other benefits received from low-risk methods of use. Harm reduction insists this initiative gives drug users the ability and willingness to act in ways advantageous to themselves and society.

The Potential Benefits of Harm Reduction

Thus the importance of harm reduction policies is their ability to empower drug users to gain control and change their lives through reducing crimes associated with illegal drug use and punishment. Recognizing a person’s rights is not the same as encouraging people to exercise it. Seeing drug use from this perspective can help society develop more compassion towards other, often stigmatized, human beings. It is their right to use substances and it also their right to receive services necessary to help them reduce or stop if requested. The rights of our own bodies should be prioritized and it is beneficial for our society to leave behind the practices that force us to regulate our bodies in certain ways determined by dominant institutions. Systems allowing us to take our own responsibility for our own bodies encourages a culture and society that sees addiction and other morally-viewed problems as a public health problem that needs the support and advocacy from others, plus personal accountability, in order to be successful.

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