What is Harm Reduction?
Harm reduction refers to policies, programmes and practices that aim to minimise the negative health, social and legal impacts associated with drug use, drug policies and drug laws.
Harm reduction is grounded in justice and human rights. It focuses on positive change and on working with people without judgement, coercion, discrimination, or requiring that people stop using drugs as a precondition of support.
Services and Practices
Harm reduction encompasses a range of health and social services and practices that apply to drugs, including but not limited to:
information on safer drug use
Drug consumption rooms
(also called overdose prevention centres or supervised consumption sites)
Needle & syringe programmes
Overdose prevention & reversal
Opioid Agonist Therapy
such as methadone and buprenorphine
Keep people alive and encourage positive change in their lives
Keeping people who use drugs alive and protecting their health are the most urgent priorities. Harm reduction approaches are facilitative rather than coercive, and aim to reinforce positive change in a person’s life, no matter how small or incremental that change may be. Recognising that only a small percentage of people who use drugs experience problematic use, harm reduction may also help people maximise any potential benefits that they gain from using drugs.
Reduce the harms of drug laws and policy
Harm reduction seeks to improve drug laws and policies, so that they are not detrimental to the health and wellbeing of people who use drugs and their communities. Many policies around the world create and exacerbate the potential risk and harms of drug use. These include: the criminalisation of people who use drugs; abusive and corrupt policing practices; the denial of life-saving medical care and harm reduction services; restrictions on possession of injecting paraphernalia; forced urine testing and detention in the name of rehabilitation; and, discrimination based on drug use, class, race, and gender. Harm reduction challenges laws and policies that contribute to drug-related harms.
Offer alternatives to approaches that seek to prevent or end drug use
Access to high quality, evidence-based prevention, care and treatment programs, including approaches that involve cessation of drug use, are important for some people. Entry into treatment should be on the terms of the individual and must never be forced. Many people who use drugs do not need treatment, and those experiencing problems associated with drug use may be unwilling or unable to enter abstinence-only treatment for myriad reasons. While abstinence from drug use may be the goal for some people who use drugs, this is an individual choice and should not be imposed, or regarded as the only option.
A commitment to evidence
Harm reduction policies and practices are informed by a strong body of evidence that shows interventions to be practical, feasible, effective, safe and cost-effective in diverse social, cultural and economic settings. Most harm reduction interventions are inexpensive and easy to implement, and have a strong positive impact on individual and community health.
Respecting the rights of people who use drugs
Harm reduction is fundamentally grounded in principles that aim to protect human rights and improve public health. Treating people who use drugs, along with their families and communities, with compassion and dignity is integral to harm reduction. The use of drugs does not mean people forfeit their human rights; everyone remains entitled to the right to life, to the highest attainable standard of health, to social services, to privacy, to freedom from arbitrary detention and to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, among others.
A commitment to social justice and collaborating with networks of people who use drugs
Harm reduction is rooted in a commitment to addressing discrimination and ensuring that nobody is excluded from the health and social services they may need because of their drug use, their race, their gender, their gender identity, their sexual orientation, their choice of work, or their economic status. People should be able to access services without having to overcome unnecessary barriers, including burdensome, discriminatory regulations. Further, the meaningful involvement of people who use drugs in designing, implementing and evaluating programmes and policies that serve them is central to harm reduction.
The avoidance of stigma
Harm reduction practitioners accept people who use drugs as they are and are committed to meeting them “where they are” in their lives without judgement. Terminology and language should always convey respect and avoid stigmatising terms or divisions between “good” and “bad” drugs. Stigmatising language perpetuates harmful stereotypes, and creates barriers to health and social services.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes. Harm reduction is effective in keeping people alive, preventing transmission of HIV and viral hepatitis, reversing overdoses, improving quality of life and connecting people to broader health services.
Harm reduction is cost-effective, evidence-based and has been proven to have a positive impact on individual and community health.
Nearly a hundred countries already have harm reduction policies and/or practices in place. There are excellent examples of harm reduction services in every region around the world, tailored to the local needs and contexts.
Yes. Harm reduction is highly cost effective and has been shown to save money.
Needle and syringe programmes are an example of a highly cost-effective harm reduction service. These life-saving programmes provide sterile syringes which prevent the transmission of diseases. Preventing illness saves government funds. Needle and syringe programmes are one of the most cost-effective public health interventions in existence.
Harm reduction encompasses a non-judgmental approach combined with a range of health and social services.
These include, but are not limited to: drug consumption rooms (also called overdose prevention centres or supervised consumption sites) where drugs can be consumed under supervision; housing and employment initiatives which do not require abstinence as a pre-condition; drug checking services where people can check illegal drugs for adulterants; overdose prevention and reversal; psychosocial support; and the provision of information on safer drug use.
No. Harm reduction does not promote or encourage drug use but helps people make healthier choices for themselves. Harm reduction recognises that there will always be some people who will use drugs, and some people who may be unwilling or unable to stop using drugs. Harm reduction offers policies, programmes and practices that aim to minimise the negative health, social and legal impacts associated with drug use as well as drug laws and policies.
Harm reduction is for anyone who wants to reduce the risks associated with drug use, as well as drug laws and policies.
Evidence shows that harm reduction services which are tailored to the unique needs of a person, are most effective at reducing the risks associated with drug use, especially when combined with other health and social services.
There is evidence to suggest that harm reduction services such as opioid agonist therapy can reduce crime, including violent crime. There is also evidence to suggest that harm reduction services such as drug consumption rooms (also known as overdose prevention centres or supervised consumption sites) do not lead to any increase in crime in the local area.