Harm Reduction

and the war on drugs

Harm reduction saved my life.
— Terrell Jones, Outreach and Advocacy Manager at NYHRE

What is Harm Reduction? 

Harm reduction is a public health philosophy and set of intervention that seeks to reduce the negative outcomes associated with drug use and ineffective drug policies. A basic tenet of harm reduction is that there has never been, and will never be, a drug-free society.The Drug Policy Alliance for advocates reducing the harms of drug use through a public health lens, using accurate, fact-based drug education, preventing drug-related illness and injury with effective drug treatment for problematic use.

We believe that every solution with the potential to promote public health and to mitigate harm should be considered. We continue to seek innovative health approaches to drug use, drug treatment, and drug policy that are based on science and research.


Expanding the harm reduction framework

Harm reduction practices center creating safe conditions for drug use, where individuals are able to receive proper care if needed. While this is vital, we must expand harm reduction to include services, and advocacy that promotes the end of policies which prevent access to basic resources. Further, we must continue to limit the role of law enforcement to ensure that drug users aren't ensnared in the criminal justice system.



moving harm reduction beyond the needle

Harm Reduction agencies provide low-threshold access to services and programs designed to support mental, physical and emotional health. When people hear the phrase 'harm reduction,' they may think of needle exchange programs (also referred to as "syringe exchange programs"), a service commonly provided by harm reduction agencies. Needle exchange programs help prevent the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood borne infections, among other benefits. But harm reduction encompasses more than just needle exchange programs.

Harm reduction practitioners work to improve the health and quality of life of people who use drugs. 

Quality of life improvements occur in the following areas:

  • Mental health improvements
  • Basic needs attainment
  • Increased social engagement
  • Increased access to other services outside of the harm reduction agency
  • Increased capacity to work and procure work opportunities

Housing as harm reduction

Policymakers must acknowledge that not all drug users are seeking, nor do they require, treatment; however, many are in need of affordable permanent and supportive housing. According to the Corporation for Supportive Housing, chronic homelessness is strongly correlated with substance use disorders and people with addictions are over-represented among the chronically homeless population. For many, substance disorder treatment comes secondary to obtaining vital basic needs. Barrier-free, supportive housing has proven successful in reducing the cost associated with crisis care services. Once people are placed in supportive housing, they are able to access necessary services to better manage their use.

Removing the stigma around Drug Use

The stigma associated with drug use and addiction has manifested itself in discriminatory policies that exclude people who use drugs or have drug convictions from many of the rights and opportunities Americans take for granted. Policymakers must include people who use drugs in the creation of programs and services designed to serve that population. Public policy is often created for people who use drugs without the consideration of their needs, resulting in the formation of programs that are not user responsive. Without the input of those with direct experience, policymakers will continue to overlook solutions beyond drug treatment and naloxone.