Written By: Fiona Stockard
What is Harm Reduction?
The first time a woman approached me on the street and asked if I wanted clean syringes, I thought I was dreaming. Turns out this wasn’t some addict fantasy or dream, rather I’d just been introduced to harm reduction.
Harm reduction is an often-controversial type of treatment. At its most basic, harm reduction aims to provide care, and in some cases rehabilitation, to active addicts.
To put it another way, harm reduction operates under the belief that reducing the self and societal damage of addiction is of the utmost importance. Guess what? It is!
Is harm reduction helping or hurting addicts, though? Does it provide much needed support or enable destructive behavior? Let’s explore some common types of harm reduction and see if we can figure out the pros and cons.
Needle exchanges are probably the most recognized form of harm reduction. This was my introduction and, I bet, countless other addicts introduction to harm reduction.
Needle exchanges are places where an addict can go and trade in dirty syringes for clean ones. Advocates say this reduces the spread of blood-borne diseases. This is accomplished by providing access to unused syringes (reducing the chance of sharing needles) and by properly disposing of used syringes (reducing the chance an unlucky person might stick themselves with a discarded needle).
Some needle exchanges are buildings, others are nothing more than vans with a permit and clean needles. The one I went to offered soup, second-hand clothes, and educational classes.
It’s kind of funny actually – I went from college classes about addiction from a sociological perspective, to needle exchange classes about how to avoid contracting HIV. Black humor was always my favorite!
Now that we know the pros of needle exchanges, what’re the cons? Well, opponents of needle exchanges argue they perpetuate addiction. They argue that illegal drugs are, well, illegal and needle exchanges allow illegal behavior to continue. However, a 2001 study done by harm reduction advocates reported needle exchanges reduced the spread of HIV in New York City by as much as 70%. That sounds pretty impressive to me!
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Opioid Replacement Therapies (ORT)
Opioid Replacement Therapy is another well-known form of harm reduction. It’s often called methadone maintenance. This is when opioid addicts are given access to methadone or buprenorphine, in an effort to wean them off street drugs.
Before we go any further, there are a few important points to make! To be enrolled in an ORT, you must take drug tests. This ensures participants aren’t abusing heroin, or pain pills, while receiving medication. Also, you go to an ORT clinic to receive medication. Doctors don’t hand out drugs on the street!
Sometimes, ORT clinics offer health and educational services, though this isn’t always the case. Advocates of Opioid Replacement Therapy say it’s a powerful way to wean addicts off of heroin and other illegal opioids.
They cite studies which show between 40% and 60% effectiveness of ORT’s, although this number is often debated. After all, it’s hard to determine what qualifies as effectiveness. Is it a year of abstinence from illegal drugs? Is it steady employment? Is it stable housing? Is it all of these things and more?
Opponents of ORT say it offers addicts a way to beat the system. They say rather than facing the consequences of their actions, addicts are given free drugs. They say ORT’s are too lenient in how they enforce drug screens.
The truth’s probably somewhere between the two. Opioid Replacement Therapies certainly help a lot of suffering addicts. They also offer a way out of active addiction, as opponents say. Isn’t that the goal, though? Don’t we, as recovering addicts and caring normies, want active addicts to get the help they need?
Does harm reduction help or hurt addicts? Click here to read Harm Reduction: Helping or Hurting Addicts? – Part Two and find out!