Harm Reduction

Most broadly, “harm reduction” consists of all the measures that can be taken to reduce the harm associated with drug use. Harm reduction is a way of meeting a person where they are and giving them the tools they need to make healthy decisions about whether or not they will continue to use drugs.

This perspective is often opposed by those who believe immediate abstinence is the only right response to drug abuse and that steps to relieve pain and protect lives condone immoral behavior. Clergy for a New Drug Policy categorically rejects this perspective.

Drug treatment is the most widely used form of harm reduction. Treatment can include behavioral therapy and medical intervention in outpatient or residential settings.  In the fall of 2015, the Obama administration took action to remove existing barriers to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addicts.  This move will expand access to evidence-based  treatment for addicts.  It marks a victory over outdated abstinence-based methods that have dominated the drug treatment industry.

Medication assisted treatment, or MAT, is a special form of harm reduction. Heroine users, for example, can receive methadone to eliminate withdrawal symptoms. If prescribed over a long period, it can help stabilize the lives of people who are dependent on, or addicted to, drugs.

Harm reduction also includes measures to prevent drug overdose. Good Samaritan laws enable individuals to call 911 to report potential overdose cases without fear of reprisal. Such laws have been enacted in 21 states. Naloxone has the capacity to quickly counteract the effects of heroin overdose. It is available in 30 states.

Providing access to clean syringes prevents HIV and hepatitis C. According to the Center for Disease Control, one-fifth of all HIV and most hepatitis C cases are caused by infected needles. The cost of a single needle is estimated to cost $0.97; the daily cost of treating AIDS with the medication Truvada is estimated at $36 per day.   Syringe access programs exist in 35 states.

On January 8, 2016, Congress lifted its ban on federal funding for needle exchanges. The government still will not pay for the purchases of needles but will permit federal support for staff salaries, counseling, and other costs.

Several countries, including Norway, Australia, and Canada, provide safe injection sites, where addicts receive health care and treatment. Such sites are operating in 27 cities worldwide. No such facilities exist in the United States.  Recent months have seen an increase in voices on state and local levels calling for safe injection sites.  The most powerful call has come from New York City, where the SIF NYC campaign has begun leading efforts to establish safe injection sites in the city.

Clergy for a New Drug Policy seeks to identify opportunities to advocate for expanded drug treatment and other harm reduction measures across the country.  We call attention to effective diversion efforts in the hope that they can serve as national models.

Questions about harm reduction? Check out our War on Drugs FAQs or contact us!

Harm Reduction In the News 

Philadelphia Wants Safe Injection Sites to Help Opioid Fight
ABC News – January 29, 2018

Effort to Increase Access to Naxolone
San Francisco Chronicle – January 3, 2018

Medicaid Expanding Acupuncture to Combat Opioid Epidemic
WFMJ – January 1, 2018

Opioid Crisis, Erie Hospitals Help Pregnant Addicts
GoErie.com – December 25, 2017

Free and Anonymous Access to Naloxone Kits
The Ubyssey – December 22, 2017

Harm Reduction at Heart of Ithaca Plan
Ithaca Journal – April 1, 2016

Shooting Up Under a Doctor’s Care: Do Injection Facilities Save or Enable Heroin Addicts?
The Daily Beast – March 3, 2016

The New War On Drugs: Harm Reduction, Needle Exchange Used More In Fight Against Heroin
Medical Daily – February 1, 2016

Decriminalizing Drugs: When Treatment Replaces Prison
New York Times – December 8, 2015

Is harm reduction an appropriate response to addictions?
The Homeless Hub – November 20, 2015

Synthetic drugs are very dangerous. Let’s legalize them.
Washington Post – June 18, 2015

Blog Posts on Harm Reduction