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What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is based on the idea that some people will use illicit drugs no matter what and that we should support policies and programs that minimize the damage caused by that drug use. The best known example of this is needle exchange programs. These programs grew out of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and make sterile needles available to IV drug users to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Harm reduction aims to reduce harm to drug users, their families, and their communities.

The principles of harm reduction hold that drug users are people entitled to the same rights and dignity as anyone else. Thus one important aspect of harm reduction is opposing abusive practices such as discrimination, withholding medical care, and criminalizing drug use. These practices are sometimes called harm maximization. Not only are these practices harmful–and sometimes illegal–in themselves, they exacerbate other problems drug users face. For example, anyone would be less likely to call an ambulance for an overdosing friend if he feared being arrested. This is why most states have some form of good samaritan law that gives people a free pass when reporting an overdose. These laws value saving lives over punishing users.

Another example of harm reduction, one frequently discussed in recent months, is the wider distribution of Narcan. Narcan is an antidote to opioid overdose. It dislodges the opioid from receptors in the brain within five minutes, allowing the overdosing person’s breathing and heart rate to return to normal. It’s commonly carried by first responders, but advocates argue Narcan should be as common as fire extinguishers. Some states have train the trainer programs in which doctors teach people how to properly administer the antidote, and those people teach others. The more widely distributed Narcan is, the more likely someone will be able to administer it in an emergency and the more lives can be saved.

Opponents of harm reduction typically believe that harm reduction only enables drug users. Therefore, they are particularly angry about taxpayer money funding harm reduction programs. It’s possible that harm reduction programs enable some people, but for the most part they do actually reduce harm. Harm reduction aims for incremental improvements, acknowledging that most users won’t go from full-blown addiction to treatment overnight. You can’t force someone to get sober, but if you can keep him from dying, he might decide to get sober later. And if your main concern is the money, consider that two doses of Narcan costs about 120 dollars while an overdose death costs taxpayers about 30,000 dollars.

Obviously, the ideal situation is to get as many people into treatment as possible, but even the most proactive states and countries only reach about half the people who need help, and the average in the US is about 10 percent. Anything we can do to limit the damage caused by drug use and addiction is worth a shot. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help you detox safely and decide on a treatment strategy. Call us today at 844-325-9168 or email us at to learn more.