Over the last decade, as faith in the effectiveness of drug policy, addiction treatment, and drug enforcement diminished, interest and hope in harm reduction grew. Harm reduction was once a last resort response to drug problems and in recent years has become the first line response to drug problems. Harm reduction is now receiving the kind of scrutiny and doubt that other responses have received in the past.
This post challenges that skepticism and seeks to reset expectations for what harm reduction can deliver:
We also must remember that harm reduction programs are often plugging holes in broken healthcare, treatment, and social services systems. Much like how a hospital treats people who come in with ailments exacerbated by poverty, lack of housing, and so on, harm reduction programs attempt to keep people alive in an extraordinarily challenging time, against the backdrop of a potent and changing drug supply. We don’t blame the hospital for society’s failures, and we shouldn’t put the onus on harm reduction programs either.
The overdose crisis is a tragic and complex problem that will not be solved overnight; it necessitates a broader and deliberate vision of our drug policy and requires deep, empathetic care for our most vulnerable. Addressing broader structural issues that contribute to homelessness, addiction, and overdose will not be easy and will take some time. In the meantime, we should empower harm reduction programs to continue saving lives, rather than place unrealistic expectations upon them.
How to Judge Harm Reduction’s Success. (2023). Retrieved October 15, 2023, from Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/fighting-a-crisis/202310/how-to-judge-harm-reductions-success
I agree with the author that people are expecting too much from harm reduction, but I’d add that we also expected too much of treatment, policy, and law enforcement.
The truth is that there are no silver bullets. However, the scale and severity of the crisis intensify the desperation for silver bullets. Worse, the search for a silver bullet leads us astray and encourages each player to pretend to be THE solution to alcohol and drug problems.
Harm reduction is essential and an incomplete response.
Specialty treatment is essential and an incomplete response.
Medical treatment is essential and an incomplete response.
Law enforcement is essential and an incomplete response.
Recovery communities are essential and an incomplete response.
Community action is essential and an incomplete response.
Family responses are essential and an incomplete response.
Public policy is essential and an incomplete response.
I’m sure I missed several things that are also essential and incomplete.
Does treatment need to do better? Yes. Same for harm reduction, public policy, medicine, law enforcement, and communities.
Who should take the lead? I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters if every system recognizes that it is essential and incomplete.