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Reducing risk: Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs. Harm reduction incorporates a spectrum of strategies from safer use, to managed use to abstinence to meet drug users “where they’re at,” addressing conditions of use along with the use itself. Because harm reduction demands that interventions and policies designed to serve drug users reflect specific individual and community needs, there is no universal definition of or formula for implementing harm reduction.
However, HRC considers the following principles central to harm reduction practice.
- Accepts, for better and or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them.
- Understands drug use as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviors from severe abuse to total abstinence, and acknowledges that some ways of using drugs are clearly 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 drug users 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 drugs users themselves as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use, and seeks to empower users 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, past 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 associated with licit and illicit drug use.
Harm reduction, as a method of prevention empowers individuals with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) to be as safe as they can while choosing to use substances. Providing individuals with SUD with opportunities to learn how to reduce risk has shown to reduce rates of contracting and transmitting infections and diseases, such as Hepatitis C, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections. Engaging in harm reduction practices, such as exchanging used syringes for new ones at a Syringe Services Program, also often provides individuals with SUD the opportunity to connect with overdose education, Narcan/Naloxone distribution, referrals to treatment, and testing for as Hepatitis C, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections.
Check out the Harm Reduction Coalition, “an extensive and diverse network of allies who challenge the persistent stigma faced by people who use drugs and advocate for policy and public health reform”, to learn more about advocacy work, educational and programmatic efforts, and policies that support and educate individuals with SUD to stay as safe as possible: https://harmreduction.org/