According to Harm Reduction International, the term 'Harm Reduction' refers to "policies, programmes and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people who are unable or unwilling to stop", with the "focus on the prevention of harm, rather than on the prevention of drug use itself".
Harm reduction programs accept that a certain "level of drug use (both licit and illicit) in society is inevitable and defines objectives as reducing adverse consequences" and emphasizing "measurement of health, social and economic outcomes, as opposed to the measurement of drug consumption.”
Now that we have a better idea of what exactly harm reduction is, let's take a look at the top five reasons to consider supporting your local harm reduction initiatives, which could help end the negatives impacts, effects and stigmas associated with addiction and drug use.
1. Access To Stigma Free Services
Harm reduction initiatives such as needle exchanges can be imperative services for those suffering from intravenous drug use and addiction. Often times, addicts and intravenous drug users can be hesitant to seek help or treatment through traditional methods, such as a hospital or family physician.
"According to research, the majority of healthcare professionals hold negative, stereotyped views of people who use illicit drugs. Stigma is a major factor preventing individuals from seeking and completing addiction treatment and from utilizing harm reduction services such as syringe access programs.”
Harm reduction services do not punish or demean anyone for their drug, instead they offer them a safe space that allows for access to clean supplies, education materials, detox and treatment options, as well as community services. Everyone deserves safe access to medical care, treatment and supplies without facing discrimination. Addicts are no different.
2. It's Cost Effective
Opponents of harm reduction say implementing the wide range of free services and supplies provided by needle/syringe exchanges and other related services will cost too much.
However, an Australian study tasked with evaluating the cost-effectiveness of needle and syringe programs came to some very interesting conclusions.
"For every one dollar invested in NSP's (needle, syringe programs), more than four dollars were returned (additional to the investment) in healthcare cost-savings in the short term (ten years) if only direct costs are included; greater returns are expected over longer time horizons."
They also found that if these programs were to decrease in size, or cease to operate, then "relatively large increases in both HIV and HCV could be expected with associated losses of health and life and reduced returns on investment,” which could result in a huge increase in healthcare and community related costs.
3. Reduction in Communicable Diseases and Infections
Harm reduction programs not only play a role in distributing sterile supplies, they also help provide intravenous drug users with the proper education regarding safe injection practices, diseases and infections.
"International evidence demonstrates that effective communicable disease prevention programming for people who use drugs can reduce transmission of HIV, HCV, HBV, and other harms related to drug use."
Education is imperative. While many intravenous drug users may be aware of the risks associated with the sharing of needles or syringes with another person, they may interpret this to mean only not with people close to them such as sexual partners, or family. They may also be unaware that sharing of other injection related supplies is just as risky.
By educating users regarding the risks, as well as how they can be minimized, the incidence of disease and infections can be greatly reduced.
4. Positive Community Impact & Reduction In Crime
Harm reduction supported community treatment programs, such as Opiate Substitution Therapy (OST, commonly known as Methadone or Suboxone), play a big part in harm reduction initiatives.
OST programs have reportedly had an immensely positive impact on the community as a whole. According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Methadone and Buprenorphine treatment lead to a "reduction in deaths, HIV infection, crime and drug use with improvements also seen in physical and mental health and social functioning.”
Other studies have shown that OST leads to a "significant reduction in expenditure on drugs, injecting behaviour, and high-risk behaviours involving sharing of syringes and needles,” while also reducing burglaries, thefts and drug-dealing.
When a user is no longer struggling to support an addiction or suffering through painful withdrawals, amazing things can happen. Many users, including myself, are once again able to return to functional members of their community through the assistance of OST.
5. Addicts Need Support, Not Punishment
The current approach of legally punishing users and dealers is not effectively curbing or dealing with the complex issues that are drugs and addiction.
Open Society Foundations, a foundation dedicated to working towards building accountable governments and tolerant societies, reports that when it comes to addiction, law enforcements punishment of users and dealers "have not successfully reduced use or availability of drugs in higher vast majority of countries."
This is no surprise to many advocates of harm reduction. Addiction and drug abuse are complex issues that are not simply resolved by legal repercussions or jail time. Not only that, but the use of illicit drugs is only increasing, and the prices of drugs on the street have actually plummeted.
Rather than punish those suffering from the absolute hell that is addiction, educational and supportive services could be offered in order to provide addicts with the same care and treatment that would be afforded to any other member of the community.
Addiction does not discriminate; everyone deserves a chance at a healthy, sober life.