More than two decades ago, the Harm Reduction Coalition started working on a drastically different take on addiction. According to the group, their approach includes “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug abuse.” They continue to explain on their site, “Harm reduction is also a social movement for social justice built on the belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”
However, does this movement address the rights of people who have to live with the addicted person or the financial and social burden a person with a substance use disorder presents to his or her community?
Harm reduction aims to incorporate strategies that promote safer drug use all the way to abstinence. Since there is no set formula to implement these ideas into society, we have yet to see if these principles actually work.
Here are some of its principles:
- Accept that drug use is a part of our society. Understanding this with the aim of reducing and minimizing its negative effects is a core principle.
- Acknowledge that some ways of using drugs are safer than others.
- Strive for quality individual and community life as the basis for intervention and policy.
- Offer non-judgmental and non-coercive services for those who are addicted and the communities they live in to assist in reducing harm.
- Give a voice to drug users in the creation of programs and policies for them.
- Give the drug user the power, as the primary agent in their use, to reduce the harm of their use and in sharing information and strategies with others.
- Understand that situations such as poverty, isolation, sexual abuse and trauma, among other issues, play a role in a person’s ability to deal with drug related harm.
- Do not minimize or ignore the real and tragic issues caused by drug abuse.
An Idealistic, But Incomplete Approach
With these core principles in place, Harm Reduction looks like a very viable option for those struggling with a substance use disorder. However, it would benefit the movement to include the all-encompassing issue that many with substance use disorder may also suffer from other mental health issues and that some of these users might find it difficult to make good decisions for their own well-being. Emphasizing that the community and families of a person in a “harm reduction” program will be safeguarded is important as well.
If harm reduction strategies can meet the obligations of society to not only protect the rights of the drug user, but those who they share a community with, it has a strong potential to be the answer to many people's addiction-related issues. However, until harm reduction’s goal eventually results in the person with substance use disorder eventually becoming a productive and contributing member of society, there’s still much work to be done. One person’s drug addiction is both a family affair and a community problem and it needs to include in its mission a way to protect all persons involved, not just the drug user.
For example, one of the most prominent ways drug addicts get sober and off the streets is when they land in jail. This is an epidemic in itself that passes on more than just financial costs to communities—a number of burdens we shouldn’t all have to bear. If the harm reduction movement could also facilitate incarceration reduction of non-violent drug offenders, then perhaps it could become a stronger, more viable option to truly reduce the sweeping issues of substance use disorder.
At its core, harm reduction can ignite hope to drug users who feel there’s no longer a way out. In some regards, it has the makings of the answer society has been looking for all along. But until it can be fully accepted and include ways to address more issues from the standpoint of people outside of the drug user, it remains a work in progress.