Harm reduction is a technique used to treat drug addiction that is aptly described by its name.
The philosophy of harm reduction is to provide addicts with a safe environment in which to use, in the name of reducing the amount of harm associated with using that drug. The focus is on preventing harm to addicts before preventing use of drugs or alcohol.
The concept is highly controversial. Critics view it as a way of enabling addicts. The traditional philosophy of keeping addicts from using any kind of substance is in opposition to the idea of harm reduction.
One of the addictions that has long been treated using the philosophy of harm reduction is heroin addiction. In itself, heroin is an incredibly dangerous and addictive substance. The way that it is used by addicts presents other dangers, such as disease and infection. For decades, treatment centers have provided users with clean needles, a safe place to use, and methadone as a substitute drug. Some see success in these programs, while others criticize them and claim that they do not work when it comes to reducing addiction.
Harm and harm reduction
The amount and variety of harm that an addict, particularly a heroin addict, can inflict on himself is astounding. The drug itself causes numerous health problems including infections in the heart, abscesses, kidney and liver damage or failure, and collapsed veins, not to mention the possibility of overdose and death.
Infectious diseases are always a concern with heroin addicts as well. Users often share needles without thinking about the consequences. In this way, diseases like HIV, hepatitis, and bacterial infections are transmitted from one user to another.
Heroin addicts are also at a greater risk of being involved in violent acts, having accidents that cause physical injuries, and committing crimes, which of course can lead to arrest and jail time. Harm reduction techniques cannot stop users from suffering the physical and mental consequences of using heroin, but they attempt to limit the other kinds of damage that can be caused.
Heroin harm reduction for addiction recovery
Heroin addiction is one of the earliest types of addiction for which harm reduction was used, probably because the high level of risk and harm associated with this drug. One of the first steps taken by clinics and public health organizations was to provide clean needles to users. This helped to stop the spread of infectious diseases, especially HIV, according to studies of at-risk populations receiving this type of harm reduction treatment.
The next step in harm reduction for heroin users was replacement therapy. Most commonly, heroin addicts are given methadone as a replacement drug. Like heroin, it is an opioid, but it is less dangerous, does not produce the same euphoric high in the user, and it reduces withdrawal symptoms from heroin. Methadone clinics administer the replacement drug to heroin addicts in a controlled environment and experts are on hand to determine the amount each individual should get. The goal of replacement therapy is keep the addict healthy and safe until he can get clean from heroin. It is also done to reduce the amount of criminal or violent activity associated with an addict trying to get more drugs. The vast majority of studies on methadone replacement therapy find that it is effective in many cases.
In some countries, addicts are actually prescribed controlled doses of heroin to keep them safe and to keep them from committing crimes. This type of harm reduction for heroin addicts is the most controversial and is not allowed in most places. It is practiced in the U.K., and has been attempted in Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Harm reduction has been shown in numerous scientific studies to be effective in reducing crime, disease, and even addiction rates in certain communities. It is not without its critics, however. Critics see harm reduction as enabling addicts and some argue that it is more important to get to the root causes of addiction than to continue to feed it. Some addicts may be on methadone for years with no end in sight.
In spite of what the critics say, the evidence clearly shows that harm reduction does more good than it does harm. Replacement therapy does help addicts come clean; providing clean needles does prevent the spread of disease; and providing addicts with drugs and safe spaces does prevent crime.