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What Is Harm Reduction And How Does It Work

What Is Harm Reduction And How Does It Work?

Addiction is a complicated, multi-faceted illness that can arise from a number of different causes and can take many forms, depending on the individual in question. Various circumstances can play a part in the development of an addiction problem, making it difficult to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution. Similarly, because of how many aspects of the addict’s life can be affected — including personal, social, and professional relationships and issues — it’s often hard to figure out how exactly to help somebody without knowing their situation in detail.

Fortunately, there are a few best-practice techniques that can be applied by anybody struggling with addiction in order to help reduce the size of the problem. Harm reduction is one of these concepts. The idea is that by helping to reduce the auxiliary risks of addiction — such as withdrawal prevention, disease contraction, and legal trouble — the addict can hopefully make their own use as safe as possible.

Close up of a man injecting drugs at a safe injection site

What Forms Can Harm Reduction Take?

At its most basic, harm reduction is a way to cut down on the risks associated with drug or alcohol use as much as possible. This can take many forms. Needle exchange programs are one well-known example. By providing active users with a safe space where they can exchange their used needles for clean hypodermic syringes, serious drug problems like chronic heroin or cocaine use can be made significantly safer. These sites perform a dual role, by helping to reduce the number of used needles in any given area and also ensuring that addicts don’t have to run the risk of acquiring diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV which often result from sharing needles.

Drug-testing kits have started to be handed out more and more at music festivals; these are another classic example of a harm reduction measure. Concert-goers can bring any chemicals they’re considering taking to an area, usually a tent, and trained volunteers will be able to test the purity of the chemical and determine if it really is what the user thinks it is. This can drastically limit the amount of exposure recreational users will have to bad batches of drugs like MDMA and amphetamine — and when combined with medical personnel on-site, the overall experience can be made as safe as possible.

Does Harm Reduction Work?

In a word: yes. Harm reduction has been rolled out in various forms across a number of different countries, but in general, the results are largely positive. Toronto introduced safe injection sites, where users can have a safe area to inject any drugs they’re addicted to under the watchful eye of trained medical professionals. Police can’t arrest anybody in the injection site itself, given that these services have an exemption to Section 56 of the CDSA (Controlled Drugs and Substances Act).

The evidence we’ve managed to gather from these services shows that harm reduction measures like safe injection sites are effective across a number of different metrics with regards to helping make substance use as safe as possible. As well as helping to reduce the instances of addicts injecting in public and getting rid of their paraphernalia in public areas, safe injection sites have also played a huge role in reducing the number of deaths by overdose.

Portugal is another example of a country that has taken steps to roll out harm reduction. All drugs have been decriminalized for personal use in the state, which means that the all-too-common trap addicts can fall into prison, relapse, and deteriorating social circumstances can be cut short by a large margin. By refusing to prosecute recreational users of drugs, they’ve been able to save money and police time, and as a result, have cut down on the drug problem hugely.

Harm Reduction Controversy

Even though all of the available evidence shows that harm reduction measures really do work as a sustainable, long-term means of managing the negative impacts of addiction, the concept still has its doubters. Many concerned citizens have raised concerns about having safe injection sites in their area, worried that where they live will become flooded with drug addicts. The concern is that a rise in crime will follow, and even though the statistics show clearly that safe injection sites don’t contribute to an increase in crime, the idea is still a matter of concern for a lot of people.

The words “safety first” written by a hand in black marker.

Another common criticism of harm reduction is that it encourages drug use rather than working to cut back on it. This argument follows a strange kind of logic that assumes people who aren’t already addicted to drugs will become addicted as soon as there’s a safe way for them to use without fear of prosecution. In reality, this isn’t the case. If people are in dire enough situations that they wind up using a hard drug like heroin, the fact that they won’t be arrested while injecting isn’t likely to be a major player in whether or not they start using. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine somebody making the huge decision to start using heroin purely because they won’t be locked up.


Even though the concept has undergone some staunch (if unwarranted) criticism over the last few years, the results more than speak to the efficacy of implementing these measures as a means of combating the various problems which can arise from active addiction, such as an increase in crime rates. The statistics show that this isn’t what happens when harm reduction measures are implemented.

Harm reduction has a more abstract effect as well, by moving the conversation about addiction away from a place of prosecuting the addicts, and towards a perspective of treating addiction like it’s an illness and providing compassion-focused measures of helping users stuck in active addiction to live their lives as safely as possible.

If you’re curious about harm reduction or want to learn more about how you can help yourself or a loved one get free from the clutches of addiction, feel free to get in touch with us here at Freedom from Addiction — we’d love to answer any questions you may have.


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