Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies that reduce
negative consequences of drug use, incorporating a spectrum of strategies
from safer use, to managed use to abstinence. Harm reduction strategies meet
drug users "where they're at," addressing conditions of use along with the
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
Accepts, for better and for 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
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
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.
With American drug treatment and prevention policy rooted in criminal law enforcement and incarceration, most approaches to drug-related problems help only a tiny fraction of the people who use illicit drugs. We recognize that families and communities (especially communities of color) are frequently devastated not only by addiction, but also by arrest and incarceration, the lack of available drug treatment, infectious disease, poor housing, unemployment, etc. Drug related problems continue to baffle
communities across the country, leaving them frustrated and hopeless in
their inability to respond to the harms they experience. The harm reduction
movement grows from the need for a conscientious response to drug use that is less damaging to the fabric of our nation's diverse communities. Harm reduction works to redress the following injustices, among others:
There is a shocking lack of the basic services that help reduce
drug-related harm. Most areas in the United States still have neither needle
exchange programs, nor over-the-counter sale of syringes, as HIV prevention
measures. Drug treatment is not available at all in some states, and there
are no methadone maintenance treatment programs in nearly one-fifth of them.
Where treatment is available, it is not funded to meet the level of demand.
Most therapeutic services for drug users, including drug treatment, are designed to serve
the priorities of providers instead of the needs of consumers. Drug
education and prevention campaigns are largely ineffective, attempting to
scare people away from using drugs instead of equipping them with accurate
information about drugs and drug use, including their adverse and harmful
Current drug control strategies criminalize a huge proportion of the
country's population. Since 1980, the number of adults incarcerated in state
and federal prisons, local jails, and on probation or parole has more than
tripled, with one-third of this expansion due to an increase in the number
of drug law violators put behind bars. Women, African-Americans, and
Latinos/as have been disproportionately affected.
A struggle exists between law enforcement and medical providers to define
drug users as either criminals or medical patients, with communities and
families left out of the debate and unable to define users as community and
family members. Effective community planning for drug treatment and
post-incarceration support for drug users have no priority in the allocation
of drug intervention funding.
The HIV epidemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United
States and continues to rage on. Swift public policy changes and the
implementation of critical services could have prevented an untold number of
deaths and HIV infections among injection drug users, their sexual partners,
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