Harm reduction, or harm minimisation, refers to a range of public health policies designed to lessen the negative social and/or physical consequences associated with various human behaviours, both legal and illegal. Harm reduction is used to decrease negative consequences of recreational drug use and sexual activity without requiring abstinence, recognising that those unable or unwilling to stop can still make positive change to protect themselves and others.
Harm reduction is most commonly applied to approaches that reduce adverse consequences from illicit drug use, and harm reduction programmes now operate across a range of services and in different regions of the world. As of 2020, some 86 countries had one or more programs using a harm reduction approach to substance use, primarily aimed at reducing blood-borne infections resulting from use of contaminated injecting equipment.
Needle-exchange programmes reduce the likelihood of people who use heroin and other substances sharing the syringes and using them more than once. Syringe-sharing often leads to the spread of infections such as HIV or hepatitis C, which can easily spread from person to person through the reuse of syringes contaminated with infected blood. Needle and syringe programmes (NSP) and Opioid Agonist Therapy (OAT) outlets in some settings offer basic primary health care. Supervised injection sites are legally sanctioned, medically supervised facilities designed to provide a safe, hygienic, and stress-free environment for people who use substances. The facilities provide sterile injection equipment, information about substances and basic health care, treatment referrals, and access to medical staff.
Opioid agonist therapy (OAT) is the medical procedure of using a harm-reducing opioid that produces significantly less euphoria, such as methadone or buprenorphine to reduce opioid cravings in people who use illegal opioid, such as heroin; buprenorphine and methadone are taken under medical supervision. Another approach is Heroin assisted treatment, in which medical prescriptions for pharmaceutical heroin (diacetylmorphine) are provided to heroin-dependent people.
Media campaigns inform drivers of the dangers of driving drunk. Most people who recreationally consume alcohol are now aware of these dangers and safe ride techniques like ‘designated drivers’ and free taxicab programmes are reducing the number of drunk-driving accidents. Many schools now provide safer sex education to teen and pre-teen students, who may engage in sexual activity. Since some adolescents are going to have sex, a harm-reductionist approach supports a sexual education which emphasizes the use of protective devices like condoms and dental dams to protect against unwanted pregnancy and the transmission of STIs. Since 1999 some countries have legalised prostitution, such as Germany (2002) and New Zealand (2003).
Many street-level harm-reduction strategies have succeeded in reducing HIV transmission in people who inject substances and sex-workers. HIV education, HIV testing, condom use, and safer-sex negotiation greatly decreases the risk of acquiring and transmitting the HIV virus.
In the case of recreational substance use, harm reduction is put forward as a useful perspective alongside the more conventional approaches of demand and supply reduction. Many advocates argue that prohibitionist laws criminalise people for suffering from a disease and cause harm; for example, by obliging people who use substances to obtain substances of unknown purity from unreliable criminal sources at high prices, thereby increasing the risk of overdose and death. The website Erowid.org collects and publishes information and first-hand experience reports about all kinds of substances to educate people who use or may use substances.
While the vast majority of harm reduction initiatives are educational campaigns or facilities that aim to reduce substance-related harm, a unique social enterprise was launched in Denmark in September 2013 to reduce the financial burden of illicit substance use for people with a drug dependence. Michael Lodberg Olsen, who was previously involved with the establishment of a substance consumption facility in Denmark, announced the founding of the Illegal magazine that will be sold by people who use substances in Copenhagen and the district of Vesterbro, who will be able to direct the profits from sales towards drug procurement. Olsen explained: “No one has solved the problem of drug addiction, so is it not better that people find the money to buy their drugs this way than through crime and prostitution?”
Traditionally, homeless shelters ban alcohol. In 1997, as the result of an inquest into the deaths of two people experiencing homelessness who recreationally used alcohol two years earlier, Toronto’s Seaton House became the first homeless shelter in Canada to operate a “wet shelter” on a “managed alcohol” principle in which clients are served a glass of wine once an hour unless staff determine that they are too inebriated to continue. Previously, people experiencing homelessness who consumed excessive amounts of alcohol opted to stay on the streets often seeking alcohol from unsafe sources such as mouthwash, rubbing alcohol or industrial products which, in turn, resulted in frequent use of emergency medical facilities. The programme has been duplicated in other Canadian cities, and a study of Ottawa’s “wet shelter” found that emergency room visit and police encounters by clients were cut by half. The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2006, found that serving people experiencing long-term homelessness and who consume excessive amounts of alcohol controlled doses of alcohol also reduced their overall alcohol consumption. Researchers found that programme participants cut their alcohol use from an average of 46 drinks a day when they entered the programme to an average of 8 drinks and that their visits to emergency rooms dropped from 13.5 to an average of 8 per month, while encounters with the police fall from 18.1 to an average of 8.8.
Downtown Emergency Service Centre (DESC), in Seattle, Washington, operates several Housing First programmes which utilize the harm reduction model. University of Washington researchers, partnering with DESC, found that providing housing and support services for homeless alcoholics costs taxpayers less than leaving them on the street, where taxpayer money goes towards police and emergency health care. Results of the study funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program (SAPRP) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April 2009. This first controlled assessment in the US of the effectiveness of Housing First, specifically targeting chronically homeless alcoholics, showed that the programme saved taxpayers more than $4 million over the first year of operation. During the first six months, the study reported an average cost-savings of 53% (even after considering the cost of administering the housing’s 95 residents) – nearly $2,500 per month per person in health and social services, compared to the per month costs of a wait-list control group of 39 homeless people. Further, despite the fact residents are not required to be abstinent or in treatment for alcohol use, stable housing also results in reduced drinking among people experiencing homelessness who recreationally use alcohol.
Depressants (Alcohol-Related Programmes)
A high amount of media coverage exists informing people of the dangers of driving drunk. Most people who recreationally consume alcohol are now aware of these dangers and safe ride techniques like ‘designated drivers’ and free taxicab programmes are reducing the number of drunk-driving accidents. Many cities have free-ride-home programmes during holidays involving high amounts of alcohol use, and some bars and clubs will provide a visibly drunk patron with a free cab ride.
In New South Wales groups of licensees have formed local liquor accords and collectively developed, implemented and promoted a range of harm minimisation programmes including the aforementioned ‘designated driver’ and ‘late night patron transport’ schemes. Many of the transport schemes are free of charge to patrons, to encourage them to avoid drink-driving and at the same time reduce the impact of noisy patrons loitering around late night venues.
Moderation Management is a programme which helps drinkers to cut back on their consumption of alcohol by encouraging safe drinking behaviour.
The HAMS Harm Reduction Network is a programme which encourages any positive change with regard to the use of alcohol or other mood altering substances. HAMS encourages goals of safer drinking, reduced drinking, moderate drinking, or abstinence. The choice of the goal is up to the individual.
Harm reduction in alcohol dependency could be instituted by use of naltrexone.
Opioids (Heroin Maintenance Programmes, HAT)
Providing medical prescriptions for pharmaceutical heroin (diacetylmorphine) to heroin-dependent people has been employed in some countries to address problems associated with the illicit use of the drug, as potential benefits exist for the individual and broader society. Evidence has indicated that this form of treatment can greatly improve the health and social circumstances of participants, while also reducing costs incurred by criminalisation, incarceration and health interventions.
In Switzerland, heroin assisted treatment is an established programme of the national health system. Several dozen centres exist throughout the country and heroin-dependent people can administer heroin in a controlled environment at these locations. The Swiss heroin maintenance programme is generally regarded as a successful and valuable component of the country’s overall approach to minimising the harms caused by illicit drug use. In a 2008 national referendum, a majority of 68% voted in favour of continuing the Swiss programme.
The Netherlands has studied medically supervised heroin maintenance. A German study of long-term heroin addicts demonstrated that diamorphine was significantly more effective than methadone in keeping patients in treatment and in improving their health and social situation. Many participants were able to find employment, some even started a family after years of homelessness and delinquency. Since then, treatment had continued in the cities that participated in the pilot study, until heroin maintenance was permanently included into the national health system in May 2009.
A heroin maintenance programme has existed in the United Kingdom (UK) since the 1920s, as drug addiction was seen as an individual health problem. Addiction to opiates was rare in the 1920s and was mostly limited to either middle-class people who had easy access due to their profession, or people who had become addicted as a side effect of medical treatment. In the 1950s and 1960s a small number of doctors contributed to an alarming increase in the number of drug-addicted people in the UK through excessive prescribing – the UK switched to more restrictive drug legislation as a result. However, the British government is again moving towards a consideration of heroin prescription as a legitimate component of the National Health Service (NHS). Evidence has clearly shown that methadone maintenance is not appropriate for all opioid-dependent people and that heroin is a viable maintenance drug that has shown equal or better rates of success.
A committee appointed by the Norwegian government completed an evaluation of research reports on heroin maintenance treatment that were available internationally. In 2011 the committee concluded that the presence of numerous uncertainties and knowledge gaps regarding the effects of heroin treatment meant that it could not recommend the introduction of heroin maintenance treatment in Norway.
The first, and only, North American heroin maintenance project is being run in Vancouver, B.C. and Montreal, Quebec. Currently, over 80 long-term heroin addicts who have not been helped by available treatment options are taking part in the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI) trials. However, critics have alleged that the control group gets unsustainably low doses of methadone, making them prone to fail and thus rigging the results in favour of heroin maintenance.
Critics of heroin maintenance programmes object to the high costs of providing heroin to people who use it. The British heroin study cost the British government £15,000 per participant per year, roughly equivalent to average person who uses heroin’s expense of £15,600 per year. Drug Free Australia contrast these ongoing maintenance costs with Sweden’s investment in, and commitment to, a drug-free society where a policy of compulsory rehabilitation of drug addicts is integral, which has yielded the one of the lowest reported illicit drug use levels in the developed world, a model in which successfully rehabilitated people who use substances present no further maintenance costs to their community, as well as reduced ongoing health care costs.
A substantial part of the money for buying heroin is obtained through criminal activities, such as robbery or drug dealing. King’s Health Partners notes that the cost of providing free heroin for a year is about one-third of the cost of placing the person in prison for a year.
Opioids (Naloxone Distribution)
Naloxone is a drug used to counter an overdose from the effect of opioids; for example, a heroin or morphine overdose. Naloxone displaces the opioid molecules from the brain’s receptors and reverses the respiratory depression caused by an overdose within two to eight minutes. The World Health Organisation (WHO) includes naloxone on their “List of Essential Medicines”, and recommends its availability and utilisation for the reversal of opioid overdoses.
Formal programmes in which the opioid inverse agonist drug naloxone is distributed have been trialled and implemented. Established programmes distribute naloxone, as per WHO’s minimum standards, to people who use substances and their peers, family members, police, prisons, and others. These treatment programmes and harm reduction centres operate in Afghanistan, Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Norway, Russia, Spain, Tajikistan, the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), Vietnam, India, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Denmark and Estonia.
Opioids (Opioid Agonist Therapy, OAT)
Opioid agonist therapy (OAT), or opioid substitution therapy (OST), uses prescription of legal, prescribed opioids, often long-acting, to diminish injection of illegal opioids and associated risk of infection or overdose. Methadone or buprenorphine are the most commonly used medicines, with methadone generally taken daily and buprenorphine available both in daily doses or long-acting implantable or injectable formulations used for a week, month or six-month period. Oral/sublingual formulations of buprenorphine incorporate the opioid antagonist naloxone to prevent people from crushing the tablets and injecting them.
In some countries, such as Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia, patients are treated with slow-release morphine when methadone is deemed inappropriate due to the individual’s circumstances. In Germany, dihydrocodeine has been used off-label in OAT for many years, however it is no longer frequently prescribed for this purpose. Extended-release dihydrocodeine is again in current use in Austria for this reason. Research into the usefulness of piritramide, extended-release hydromorphone (including polymer implants lasting up to 90 days), dihydroetorphine and other substances for OAT is at various stages in a number of countries. In 2020 in Vancouver, Canada, health authorities began vending machine dispensing of hydromorphone tablets as a response to elevated rates of fatal overdose from street drugs contaminated with fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.
The driving principle behind OAT is the programme’s capacity to facilitate a resumption of stability in the person’s life, while they experience reduced symptoms of withdrawal symptoms and less intense drug cravings; however, a strong euphoric effect is not experienced as a result of the treatment drug. In some countries (not the US, UK, Canada, or Australia), regulations enforce a limited time period for people on OAT programmes that conclude when a stable economic and psychosocial situation is achieved. (Patients suffering from HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C are usually excluded from this requirement.) In practice, 40-65% of patients maintain complete abstinence from opioids while receiving OAT, and 70-95% are able to reduce their use significantly, while experiencing a concurrent elimination or reduction in medical (improper diluents, non-sterile injecting equipment), psychosocial (mental health, relationships), and legal (arrest and imprisonment) issues that can arise from the use of illicit opioids.
Opioids (Opioid Substitution Therapy, OST)
NSP and opioid substitution therapy (OST) outlets in some settings also offer basic primary health care. These are known as ‘targeted primary health care outlet’- as these outlets primarily target people who inject drugs and/or ‘low-threshold health care outlet’- as these reduce common barriers clients often face when they try to access health care from the conventional health care outlets. For accessing sterile injecting equipment clients frequently visit NSP outlets, and for receiving pharmacotherapy (e.g. methadone, buprenorphine) they visit OST clinics; these frequent visits are used opportunistically to offer much needed health care. These targeted outlets have the potential to mitigate clients’ perceived barriers to access to healthcare delivered in traditional settings. The provision of accessible, acceptable and opportunistic services which are responsive to the needs of this population is valuable, facilitating a reduced reliance on inappropriate and cost-ineffective emergency department care.
The Zendo Project conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies uses principles from psychedelic therapy to provide safe places and emotional support for people having difficult experiences on psychedelic drugs at select festivals such as Burning Man, Boom Festival, and Lightning in a Bottle without medical or law enforcement intervention.
Substances such as MDMA (commonly sold by the slang names “ecstasy” and “molly”) are often adulterated. One harm reduction approach is drug checking, where people intending to use drugs can have their substances tested for content and purity so that they can then make more informed decisions about safer consumption. European organisations have offered drug checking services since 1992 and these services now operate in over twenty countries. As an example, the non-profit organization DanceSafe offers on-site testing of the contents of pills and powders at various electronic music events around the US. They also sell kits for people who use substances to test the contents of the substances themselves. PillReports.com invites people who use ecstasy to send samples of substances for laboratory testing and publishes the results online.
Specific harms associated with cannabis include increased accident-rate while driving under intoxication, dependence, psychosis, detrimental psychosocial outcomes for adolescents who use substances, and respiratory disease. Some safer cannabis usage campaigns including the UKCIA (United Kingdom Cannabis Internet Activists) encourage methods of consumption shown to cause less physical damage to a person’s body, including oral (eating) consumption, vaporisation, the usage of bongs which cool and to some extent filters the smoke, and smoking the cannabis without mixing it with tobacco.
The fact that cannabis possession carries prison sentences in most developed countries is also pointed out as a problem by European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), as the consequences of a conviction for otherwise law-abiding people who use substances arguably is more harmful than any harm from the substance itself. For example, by adversely affecting employment opportunities, impacting civil rights, and straining personal relationships. Some people like Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance have suggested that organized marijuana legalisation would encourage safe use and reveal the factual adverse effects from exposure to this herb’s individual chemicals.
The way the laws concerning cannabis are enforced is also very selective, even discriminatory. Statistics show that the socially disadvantaged, immigrants and ethnic minorities have significantly higher arrest rates. Drug decriminalisation, such as allowing the possession of small amounts of cannabis and possibly its cultivation for personal use, would alleviate these harms. Where decriminalisation has been implemented, such as in several states in Australia and United States, as well as in Portugal and the Netherlands no, or only very small adverse effects have been shown on population cannabis usage rate. The lack of evidence of increased use indicates that such a policy shift does not have adverse effects on cannabis-related harm while, at the same time, decreasing enforcement costs.
In the last few years certain strains of the cannabis plant with higher concentrations of THC and drug tourism have challenged the former policy in the Netherlands and led to a more restrictive approach; for example, a ban on selling cannabis to tourists in coffeeshops suggested to start late 2011. Sale and possession of cannabis is still illegal in Portugal and possession of cannabis is a federal crime in the United States.
Tobacco harm reduction describes actions taken to lower the health risks associated with using tobacco, especially combustible forms, without abstaining completely from tobacco and nicotine. Some of these measures include switching to safer (lower tar) cigarettes, switching to snus or dipping tobacco, or using a non-tobacco nicotine delivery systems. In recent years, the growing use of electronic cigarettes for smoking cessation, whose long-term safety remains uncertain, has sparked an ongoing controversy among medical and public health between those who seek to restrict and discourage all use until more is known and those who see them as a useful approach for harm reduction, whose risks are most unlikely to equal those of smoking tobacco. “Their usefulness in tobacco harm reduction as a substitute for tobacco products is unclear, but in an effort to decrease tobacco related death and disease, they have a potential to be part of the strategy.
It is widely acknowledged that discontinuation of all tobacco products confers the greatest lowering of risk. However, there is a considerable population of inveterate smokers who are unable or unwilling to achieve abstinence. Harm reduction may be of substantial benefit to these individuals.
Routes of Administration
Needle Exchange Programmes (NEP)
The use of some illicit drugs can involve hypodermic needles. In some areas (notably in many parts of the US), these are available solely by prescription. Where availability is limited, people who use heroin and other substances frequently share the syringes and use them more than once. As a result, infections such as HIV or hepatitis C can spread from person to person through the reuse of syringes contaminated with infected blood. The principles of harm reduction propose that syringes should be easily available or at least available through a needle and syringe programmes (NSP). Where syringes are provided in sufficient quantities, rates of HIV are much lower than in places where supply is restricted. In many countries people who use substances are supplied equipment free of charge, others require payment or an exchange of dirty needles for clean ones, hence the name.
A 2010 review found insufficient evidence that NSP prevents transmission of the hepatitis C virus, tentative evidence that it prevents transmission of HIV and sufficient evidence that it reduces self-reported injecting risk behaviour. It has been shown in the many evaluations of needle-exchange programmes that in areas where clean syringes are more available, illegal drug use is no higher than in other areas. Needle exchange programmes have reduced HIV incidence by 33% in New Haven and 70% in New York City.
The Melbourne, Australia inner-city suburbs of Richmond and Abbotsford are locations in which the use and dealing of heroin has been concentrated for a protracted time period. Research organisation the Burnet Institute completed the 2013 ‘North Richmond Public Injecting Impact Study’ in collaboration with the Yarra Drug and Health Forum, City of Yarra and North Richmond Community Health Centre and recommended 24-hour access to sterile injecting equipment due to the ongoing “widespread, frequent and highly visible” nature of illicit drug use in the areas. During the period between 2010 and 2012 a four-fold increase in the levels of inappropriately discarded injecting equipment was documented for the two suburbs. In the local government area the City of Yarra, of which Richmond and Abbotsford are parts of, 1550 syringes were collected each month from public syringe disposal bins in 2012. Furthermore, ambulance callouts for heroin overdoses were 1.5 times higher than for other Melbourne areas in the period between 2011 and 2012 (a total of 336 overdoses), and drug-related arrests in North Richmond were also three times higher than the state average. The Burnet Institute’s researchers interviewed health workers, residents and local traders, in addition to observing the drug scene in the most frequented North Richmond public injecting locations.
On 28 May 2013, the Burnet Institute stated in the media that it recommends 24-hour access to sterile injecting equipment in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray after the area’s drug culture continues to grow after more than ten years of intense law enforcement efforts. The institute’s research concluded that public injecting behaviour is frequent in the area and inappropriately discarding injecting paraphernalia has been found in carparks, parks, footpaths and drives. Furthermore, people who inject drugs have broken open syringe disposal bins to reuse discarded injecting equipment.
The British public body, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), introduced a new recommendation in early April 2014 due to an increase in the presentation of the number of young people who inject steroids at UK needle exchanges. NICE previously published needle exchange guidelines in 2009, in which needle and syringe services are not advised for people under the age of 18 years, but the organisation’s director Professor Mike Kelly explained that a “completely different group” of people were presenting at programmes. In the updated guidance, NICE recommended the provision of specialist services for “rapidly increasing numbers of steroid users”, and that needles should be provided to people under the age of 18 – a first for NICE – following reports of 15-year-old steroid injectors seeking to develop their muscles.
Supervised Injection Sites (SIS)
Supervised injection sites (SIS), or Drug consumption rooms (DCR), are legally sanctioned, medically supervised facilities designed to address public nuisance associated with drug use and provide a hygienic and stress-free environment for drug consumers.
The facilities provide sterile injection equipment, information about drugs and basic health care, treatment referrals, and access to medical staff. Some offer counselling, hygienic and other services of use to itinerant and impoverished individuals. Most programmes prohibit the sale or purchase of illegal drugs. Many require identification cards. Some restrict access to local residents and apply other admission criteria, such as they have to be people who inject substances, but generally in Europe they do not exclude people with substance use disorders who consume their substances through other means.
The Netherlands had the first staffed injection room, although they did not operate under explicit legal support until 1996. Instead, the first centre where it was legal to inject drug was in Berne, Switzerland, opened 1986. In 1994, Germany opened its first site. Although, as in the Netherlands they operated in a “gray area”, supported by the local authorities and with consent from the police until the Bundestag provided a legal exemption in 2000.
In Europe, Luxembourg, Spain and Norway have opened facilities after year 2000. As did the two existing facilities outside Europe, with Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) established in May 2001 as a trial and Vancouver’s Insite, opened in September 2003. In 2010, after a nine-year trial, the Sydney site was confirmed as a permanent public health facility. As of late 2009 there were a total of 92 professionally supervised injection facilities in 61 cities.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s latest systematic review from April 2010 did not find any evidence to support concerns that DCR might “encourage drug use, delay treatment entry or aggravate problems of local drug markets.” Jürgen Rehm and Benedikt Fischer explained that while evidence show that DCR are successful, that “interpretation is limited by the weak designs applied in many evaluations, often represented by the lack of adequate control groups.” Concluding that this “leaves the door open for alternative interpretations of data produced and subsequent ideological debate.”
The EMCDDA review noted that research into the effects of the facilities “faces methodological challenges in taking account of the effects of broader local policy or ecological changes”, still they concluded “that the facilities reach their target population and provide immediate improvements through better hygiene and safety conditions for injectors.” Further that “the availability of safer injecting facilities does not increase levels of drug use or risky patterns of consumption, nor does it result in higher rates of local drug acquisition crime.” While its usage is “associated with self-reported reductions in injecting risk behaviour such as syringe sharing, and in public drug use” and “with increased uptake of detoxification and treatment services.” However, “a lack of studies, as well as methodological problems such as isolating the effect from other interventions or low coverage of the risk population, evidence regarding DCRs – while encouraging – is insufficient for drawing conclusions with regard to their effectiveness in reducing HIV or hepatitis C virus (HCV) incidence.” Concluding with that “there is suggestive evidence from modelling studies that they may contribute to reducing drug-related deaths at a city level where coverage is adequate, the review-level evidence of this effect is still insufficient.”
Critics of this intervention, such as drug prevention advocacy organisations, Drug Free Australia and Real Women of Canada point to the most rigorous evaluations, those of Sydney and Vancouver. Two of the centres, in Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada cost $2.7 million and $3 million per annum to operate respectively, yet Canadian mathematical modelling, where there was caution about validity, indicated just one life saved from fatal overdose per annum for Vancouver, while the Drug Free Australia analysis demonstrates the Sydney facility statistically takes more than a year to save one life. The Expert Advisory Committee of the Canadian Government studied claims by journal studies for reduced HIV transmission by Insite but “were not convinced that these assumptions were entirely valid.” The Sydney facility showed no improvement in public injecting and discarded needles beyond improvements caused by a coinciding heroin drought, while the Vancouver facility had an observable impact. Drug dealing and loitering around the facilities were evident in the Sydney evaluation, but not evident for the Vancouver facility.
Safer Sex Programmes
Many schools now provide safer sex education to teen and pre-teen students, who may engage in sexual activity. Since some adolescents are going to have sex, a harm-reductionist approach supports a sexual education which emphasizes the use of protective devices like condoms and dental dams to protect against unwanted pregnancy and the transmission of STIs. This runs contrary to abstinence-only sex education, which teaches that educating children about sex can encourage them to engage in it.
These programmes have been found to decrease risky sexual behaviour and prevent sexually transmitted diseases. They also reduce rates of unwanted pregnancies. Abstinence only programmes do not appear to affect HIV risks in developed countries with no evidence available for other areas.
Since 1999 some countries have legalised prostitution, such as Germany (2002) and New Zealand (2003). However, in most countries the practice is prohibited. Gathering accurate statistics on prostitution and human trafficking is extremely difficult. This has resulted in proponents of legalisation claiming that it reduces organised crime rates while opponents claim exactly the converse. The Dutch prostitution policy, which is one of the most liberal in the world, has gone back and forth on the issue several times. In the period leading up to 2015 up to a third of officially sanctioned work places had been closed down again after reports of human trafficking. Prostitutes themselves are generally opposed to what they see as “theft of their livelihood”.
Sex Work and HIV
Despite the depth of knowledge of HIV/AIDS, rapid transmission has occurred globally in sex workers. The relationship between these two variables greatly increases the risk of transmission among these populations, and also to anyone associated with them, such as their sexual partners, their children, and eventually the population at large.
Many street-level harm-reduction strategies have succeeded in reducing HIV transmission in injecting drug users and sex-workers. HIV education, HIV testing, condom use, and safer-sex negotiation greatly decreases the risk to the disease. Peer education as a harm reduction strategy has especially reduced the risk of HIV infection, such as in Chad, where this method was the most cost-effective per infection prevented.
The threat of criminal repercussions marginalises sex-workers and people who inject substances, often resulting in high-risk behaviour, increasing the rate of overdose, infectious disease transmission, and violence.
Decriminalisation as a harm-reduction strategy gives the ability to treat substance use disorder solely as a public health issue rather than a criminal activity. This enables other harm-reduction strategies to be employed, which results in a lower incidence of HIV infection.
One of the first harm reduction models was called the “Mersey Harm Reduction Model ” in 1980s Liverpool, and the success of utilising outreach workers, distribution of education, and providing clean equipment to drug users was shown in the fact that an HIV epidemic did not happen in Mersey. This catapulted the model into International conferences on drug related harm in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, making it an internationally recognized model of preventing HIV/AIDS specifically within injecting drug user populations. There was much connection between San Francisco (an epicentre of HIV/AIDS advocacy in the US) and Liverpool. Harm reduction slowly began to transform the action around drug use from an individualistic approach that mainstream US healthcare often relies on, towards a more holistic population-based approach.
The AIDS epidemic, which began in the 80s and peaked in 1995, further complicated the politicisation of drug users and drug use in the US. The implementation of harm reduction faced much resistance within the US due to the demonisation of particular drugs associated with stigmatised groups, such as sex workers and drug-injecting users.
Decriminalisation as a harm-reduction strategy gives the ability to treat substance use disorder solely as a public health issue rather than a criminal activity. This enables other harm-reduction strategies to be employed, which results in a lower incidence of HIV infection.
With the growing concern about psychiatric medication adverse effects and long-term dependency, peer-run mental health groups Freedom Centre and The Icarus Project published the Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs. The self-help guide provides patients with information to help assess risks and benefits, and to prepare to come off, reduce, or continue medications when their physicians are unfamiliar with or unable to provide this guidance. The guide is in circulation among mental health consumer groups and has been translated into ten languages.
Critics, such as Drug Free America Foundation and other members of network International Task Force on Strategic Drug Policy, state that a risk posed by harm reduction is by creating the perception that certain behaviours can be partaken of safely, such as illicit drug use, that it may lead to an increase in that behaviour by people who would otherwise be deterred. The signatories of the drug prohibitionist network International Task Force on Strategic Drug Policy stated that they oppose drug use harm reduction “…strategies as endpoints that promote the false notion that there are safe or responsible ways to use drugs. That is, strategies in which the primary goal is to enable drug users to maintain addictive, destructive, and compulsive behaviour by misleading users about some drug risks while ignoring others.”
In 2008, the World Federation Against Drugs stated that while “…some organisations and local governments actively advocate the legalisation of drugs and promote policies such as “harm reduction” that accept drug use and do not help people who use substances to become free from substance use. This undermines the international efforts to limit the supply of and demand for drugs.” The Federation states that harm reduction efforts often end up being “drug legalisation or other inappropriate relaxation efforts, a policy approach that violates the UN Conventions.”
Critics furthermore reject harm reduction measures for allegedly trying to establish certain forms of drug use as acceptable in society. The Drug Prevention Network of Canada states that harm reduction has “…come to represent a philosophy in which illicit substance use is seen as largely unpreventable, and increasingly, as a feasible and acceptable lifestyle as long as use is not ‘problematic'”, an approach which can increase “acceptance of drug use into the mainstream of society”. They say harm reduction “…sends the wrong message to…children and youth” about drug use. In 2008, the Declaration of World Forum Against Drugs criticized harm reduction policies that “…accept drug use and do not help drug users to become free from drug abuse”, which the group say undermines “…efforts to limit the supply of and demand for drugs.” They state that harm reduction should not lead to less efforts to reduce drug demand.
Pope Benedict XVI criticised harm reduction policies with regards to HIV/AIDS, saying that it was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems”. This position was in turn widely criticised for misrepresenting and oversimplifying the role of condoms in preventing infections.
Neil Hunt’s article entitled “A review of the evidence-base for harm reduction approaches to drug use” examines the criticisms of harm reduction, which include claims that it is not effective; that it prevents addicts from “hitting a rock bottom” thus trapping them in addiction; that it encourages drug use; that harm reduction is a Trojan horse strategy for “drug law reform”, such as drug legalisation.