I do a lot of talking to people in our community about the impact of drug addiction, specifically opiate addiction. One comment that I sometimes overhear is something to the effect of “Why should we waste money trying to bring back addicts who have overdosed if they are just going to do it again?” There are many answers to that question but most importantly because the human being who overdoses is still a human being. The addict is someone’s brother, son, aunt, cousin, neighbor, or co-worker.
Naloxone is the drug administered when an individual has overdosed from opiates, and it can prevent death. This is one of several harm reduction strategies that are being used throughout the United States today in order to address the opiate epidemic. The defining idea of harm reduction is the focus on preventing harm, rather than on the prevention of drug use itself, or the focus on people who continue to use drugs. Harm reduction accepts that many people who use drugs are unable or unwilling to stop using them at any given time. Access to good treatment is important for people with drug problems, but many people are unable or unwilling to get treatment.
Other examples of harm reduction programming are those that offer safe and clean needles in order to reduce and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. Drug checking (also known as pill testing or adulterant screening) is another strategy that allows people who use drugs to identify the substance they intend on taking to help prevent harms associated with unknowingly consuming a substance adulterated with a dangerous contaminant like fentanyl.
It is important to recognize that drug use is a complex, multifaceted problem, or as we like to call it, “A Big Hairy Audacious Problem.” There are many behaviors that fall into this category from severe abuse to total abstinence, and it is important to acknowledge that some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others.
Harm reduction measures are those that do not attempt to minimize or ignore the real and tragic harm and danger associated with licit and illicit drug use but rather acknowledges that needless deaths and additional health complications can be minimized. These strategies are most often employed with the knowledge that if we can keep people alive; treat them with respect, kindness, and compassion; and offer them alternatives, they have the best chances of recovering of their own free wills.
It is hard to sell this concept to many people. There is a mistaken belief that we can force people to stop using drugs. This is followed by the idea that if we cannot force them to stop using drugs, then we should lock them up and throw away the key. This, of course, implies that people who are locked up have no access to drugs and that, somehow, we can as a community afford to lose our younger population to jails and prisons.
Personally, I am an advocate for using a pretty wide range of strategies to address any problem, especially one as complicated as drug abuse. I would hate to see us limit the types of ideas we use to help and reduce the impact of this opiate epidemic.