Medically Reviewed

Harm Reduction: What it is and Why it Matters

- 4 sections

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

While many recovery programs promote complete abstinence, there is another aspect of addiction treatment that matters – harm reduction. Harm reduction is a term that encompasses a variety of programs, policies, and practices that attempt to minimize the social, economic, and health consequences of substance abuse. Rather than eliminating substance abuse, it focuses on reducing harmful effects. 


The idea behind harm reduction is that many people will abuse drugs despite negative consequences. In addition, the idea accepts that a large number of people are not seeking treatment or do not have access to it. However, these policies and programs provide individuals with resources to help minimize overdose deaths, blood-borne illnesses, and more. 


How it Works

Numerous studies show how the War on Drugs failed. Narcotic trafficking is widespread, addicts face daily stigmas, and the prison system is full of people who committed non-violent drug crimes. [1] On the other hand, countries like Portugal, who have decriminalized most drugs, see more success with treatment programs and harm reduction policies. After all, when a nation places drug users in prison, they must spend money and resources on healthcare, housing, food, and more. Furthermore, this leaves addicts in a place with limited access to mental healthcare and addiction treatment. This leads to a slew of problems, including: 

  • Decreased property values in communities impacted by illicit drugs
  • Increased crime rates
  • High recidivism rates
  • Public health concerns, such as HIV and AIDS
  • Increased demand for foster care for children with addicted parents


Although eliminating illicit drug abuse may seem like the obvious solution, the reality is that people will continue to abuse substances to some degree. This is where harm reduction comes in. Through the use of community support and expansive resources, complications from drug abuse can be reduced. People who embrace the harm reduction model fully accept that it is unrealistic to try and stop drug abuse. Instead, they believe that it is wiser to provide safe policies and practices to reduce the community impact of substance abuse. 


Harm Reduction Strategies

One popular strategy includes needle-exchange programs (NEPs), also known as syringe services programs (SSPs). These programs allow people to turn in their dirty needles in exchange for clean ones. As a result, less needle sharing occurs and the spreading of blood-borne viruses decreases. The CDC explains that “nearly 30 years of research has shown that comprehensive SSPs are safe, effective, and cost-saving…[they] do not increase illegal drug use or crime, and play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV, and other infections.” In addition, research shows that people who use SSPs are five times more likely to enter a drug rehab program and are three times more likely to stop using drugs.[2]


Expanding the availability and use of naloxone is another key component to harm reduction. After all, access to clean needles doesn’t necessarily mean no overdoses. As a result, many SSPs also provide the life-saving drug naloxone to help reduce the number of opioid overdose deaths. However, it is equally important that citizens are educated on how to administer naloxone. This way, people who overdose can be saved and ultimately have a chance at recovery.


Another strategy that is now the gold standard for addiction treatment centers across the nation is medication-assisted treatment (MAT). MAT involves the use of medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone, and more. These drugs are proven to significantly reduce cravings, eliminate withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse among people who suffer from opioid use disorder. Although some of these medications are opioids themselves, they are far safer and less likely to be abused than illicit opioids. 


What the Critics Say

Unfortunately, a lot of stigmas still surrounds both addiction and harm reduction techniques. For example, many people still believe that addiction is a choice and that addicts suffer from a moral failing. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse contends that addiction is a complex disease of the brain.[3] Drug abuse changes the brain in ways that make stopping difficult, even among people who desperately want to. When it comes to harm reduction techniques, critics argue that they enable and excuse poor choices. In addition, critics observe that MAT drugs can be addictive or diverted, causing further problems with drug addiction and crime. Due to these stigmas and beliefs, harm reduction models have been slow to take off, despite promising evidence that the benefits outweigh the risks.[4]


Proven Benefits of Harm Reduction

This addiction treatment modality is important for helping people who refuse to commit to complete abstinence. Benefits of harm reduction techniques include:

  • Reduced rates of blood-borne illness
  • Fewer overdose deaths
  • Reduced needle sharing and public injection practices
  • Lower crime rates among people who abuse substances
  • Increased education about substance abuse
  • Increased education about healthy practices and treatment resources
  • Higher rates of addiction treatment program referrals


Overall, harm reduction makes it as easy as possible for greater numbers of people to get help. Look at it this way: would you rather have a newly sober person suffer from hepatitis due to sharing needles in the past – or would you rather give individuals in active addiction clean needles so that when they get clean, they have one less obstacle to face? Or, which one sounds better – a deadly heroin addiction that leads to hospital visits and multiple treatment stays or a Suboxone maintenance program that allows someone to live a happy, healthy life?


Consequently, harm reduction helps empower people who are suffering to improve their quality of life. These services help people with addiction move in the right direction – towards a better life.