Harm Reduction

1. Principles of Harm Reduction

"Harm reduction incorporates a spectrum of strategies that includes safer use, managed use, abstinence, meeting people who use drugs 'where they’re at,' and addressing conditions of use along with the use itself. Because harm reduction demands that interventions and policies designed to serve people who use drugs reflect specific individual and community needs, there is no universal definition of or formula for implementing harm reduction.

"However, National Harm Reduction Coalition considers the following principles central to harm reduction practice:

"Accepts, for better or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them

"Understands drug use as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviors from severe use to total abstinence, and acknowledges that some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others

"Establishes quality of individual and community life and well-being — not necessarily cessation of all drug use — as the criteria for successful interventions and policies

"Calls for the non-judgmental, non-coercive provision of services and resources to people who use drugs and the communities in which they live in order to assist them in reducing attendant harm

"Ensures that people who use drugs and those with a history of drug use routinely have a real voice in the creation of programs and policies designed to serve them

"Affirms people who use drugs (PWUD) themselves as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use and seeks to empower PWUD to share information and support each other in strategies which meet their actual conditions of use

"Recognizes that the realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination, and other social inequalities affect both people’s vulnerability to and capacity for effectively dealing with drug-related harm

"Does not attempt to minimize or ignore the real and tragic harm and danger that can be associated with illicit drug use"

National Harm Reduction Coalition. Principles of Harm Reduction. Revised 2020. Last accessed Nov. 2, 2021.

2. Conclusion of NIH Report to Congress on Overdose Prevention Centers

"A 2014 meta-analysis of 75 studies concluded that OPCs have largely fulfilled their initial objectives;39 the implementation of new OPCs in places with high rates of IDU and its associated harms appears to be supported by the existing evidence.39 Methodological caveats notwithstanding, drug use supervision and overdose management have the potential to provide health benefits to at-risk PWID as well as economic advantages to the larger community. The preponderance of the evidence suggests these sites are able to provide sterile equipment, overdose reversal, and linkage to medical care for addiction, in the virtual absence of significant direct risks like increases in drug use, drug sales, or crime. OPCs may represent a novel way of addressing some of the many challenges presented by the overdose crisis, and they could contribute to reduced morbidity and mortality, and improved public health.

"Based on the above considerations, there is a clear need for more rigorous research and evaluation of OPCs. Given the amount and quality of the existing data, it may be prudent to consider the American Medical Association’s recommendation of developing and implementing OPC pilot programs in the United States designed, monitored, and evaluated to generate locality-relevant data to inform policymakers on the feasibility and effectiveness of OPCs in reducing harms and health care costs related to IDU.94

National Institutes of Health. Report to Congress: Overdose Prevention Centers. Washington, DC: Dept. of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse. Nov. 2021.

3. Rhode Island Becomes First State in US to Approve Legal Establishment of Overdose Prevention Sites

"Gov. Dan McKee has signed legislation introduced by Majority Floor Manager John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth) and Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence) that authorizes a two-year pilot program to prevent drug overdoses through the establishment of harm reduction centers, which are a community-based resource for health screening, disease prevention and recovery assistance where persons may safely consume pre-obtained substances.

"The law (2021-H 5245A, 2021-S 0016B) authorizes facilities where people may safely consume those substances under the supervision of health care professionals. It requires the approval of the city or town council of any municipality where the center would operate."

State of Rhode Island General Assembly. Harm reduction center pilot program to combat overdose deaths becomes law. News Release, July 7, 2021.

4. Harm Reduction Interventions Aim To Reduce The Negative Effects Of Health Behaviors

"Harm reduction refers to interventions aimed at reducing the negative effects of health behaviors without necessarily extinguishing the problematic health behaviors completely or permanently. Though the harm reduction model as we know it rose in prominence in the 1970s and 1980s in response to infectious diseases such as hepatitis B and HIV [1], its roots extend at least as far back as the early 1900s with narcotic maintenance clinics [2, 3]. In the context of substance use, harm reduction disentangles the notion that drug use equals harm and instead identifies the negative consequences of drug use as the target for intervention rather than drug use itself [4]. Harm reduction strategies include syringe exchange programs, safer injection facilities, overdose prevention programs and policies, and opioid substitution treatment. Harm reduction as an approach stands in opposition to the traditional medical model of addiction which labels any illicit substance use as abuse, as well as to the moral model, which labels drug use as wrong and therefore illegal [5]. While most often applied in treatment for illicit substance use, harm reduction is increasingly used in many different settings, with a variety of populations, and in instances where there is a desire to reduce the negative effects of legal/licit substances, such as in tobacco smoking reduction and e-cigarette substitution programs [6, 7], in programs to reduce the harms associated with alcohol [6, 8, 9], in interventions addressing eating disorders or domestic violence [10], or with people who exchange sex for drugs, money, or material goods [11,12,13]. Nevertheless, harm reduction has not been formally incorporated into the daily repertoires of healthcare providers who aim to improve health behaviors (e.g., physical activity, nutrition) among their patients."

Hawk M, Coulter RWS, Egan JE, et al. Harm reduction principles for healthcare settings. Harm Reduct J. 2017;14(1):70. Published 2017 Oct 24. doi:10.1186/s12954-017-0196-4

5. Quality Data Needed To Inform Efforts For Implementation Of Appropriate Services

"According to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), an estimated 11.3 million people inject drugs globally, while HIV prevalence is estimated to be 12.6% and hepatitis C prevalence 48.5% among this population. However, while 179 of 206 countries report some injecting drug use, 110 countries and territories worldwide have no data on its prevalence. This data gap highlights the need for more and higher quality data to inform our efforts to implement appropriate harm reduction services that can address public health issues, including HIV and hepatitis C, soft tissue infections, and overdose."

Harm Reduction International (2020). Global State of Harm Reduction 2020. London: Harm Reduction International.

6. Good Samaritan and Naloxone Access Laws Save Lives

"GAO found that 48 jurisdictions (47 states and D.C.) have enacted both Good Samaritan and Naloxone Access laws. Kansas, Texas and Wyoming do not have a Good Samaritan law for drug overdoses but have a Naloxone Access law. The five U.S. territories do not have either type of law. GAO also found that the laws vary. For example, Good Samaritan laws vary in the types of drug offenses that are exempt from prosecution and whether this immunity takes effect before an individual is arrested or charged, or after these events but before trial.

"GAO reviewed 17 studies that provide potential insights into the effectiveness of Good Samaritan laws in reducing overdose deaths or the factors that may contribute to a law’s effectiveness. GAO found that, despite some limitations, the findings collectively suggest a pattern of lower rates of opioid-related overdose deaths among states that have enacted Good Samaritan laws, both compared to death rates prior to a law’s enactment and death rates in states without such laws. In addition, studies found an increased likelihood of individuals calling 911 if they are aware of the laws. However, findings also suggest that awareness of Good Samaritan laws may vary substantially across jurisdictions among both law enforcement officers and the public, which could affect their willingness to call 911."

"Most States Have Good Samaritan Laws and Research Indicates They May Have Positive Effects," US General Accountability Office, March 2021, GAO-21-248.

7. Harm Reduction Implementation Needs To Improve

"Harm reduction implementation has worsened since our last report in 2018, after having stalled since 2014. The number of countries where needle and syringe programmes (NSPs) remained level at 86, and the number of countries where opioid agonist therapy (OAT) is available decreased by two to 84. There are also large differences between the regions in terms of harm reduction implementation: while NSPs and OAT are available in most countries in Eurasia, North America and Western Europe, these core harm reduction interventions are severely lacking in the majority of countries in other regions. An unfavourable drug policy environment hinders harm reduction service implementation in many countries across Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and sub-Saharan Africa. Several countries have adopted more punitive drug strategies since the Global State of Harm Reduction last reported in 2018, including Bangladesh, Brazil and Sri Lanka.

"Even where harm reduction services are available, there is often insufficient coverage and quality, or a lack of access to these services. Significant geographical gaps and an uneven distribution of services exist even in countries pioneering harm reduction or in countries where harm reduction has been available for decades. Rural communities are particularly underserved in many countries and regions. In addition to the geographical gaps in coverage, there are sub-groups of people who use drugs that experience barriers in access because harm reduction services aren’t tailored to their unique needs. These groups include women who use drugs, men who have sex with men, people who use stimulants and/or non-injecting methods, and people experiencing homelessness."

Harm Reduction International (2020). Global State of Harm Reduction 2020. London: Harm Reduction International.

8. Structural Barriers To Effective Harm Reduction Implementation

"Overarching structural problems also negatively affect access to services. Criminalisation, racism and discrimination against Indigenous, Black and brown people results in low household incomes, unemployment, food insecurity, poor housing and lower levels of education. This, in turn, results not only in worse health outcomes for these communities but also in people from these communities disengaging or actively avoiding health services.

"Women who use drugs are still frequently overlooked despite the complex harms, stigmatisation and structural violence they face. A substantial increase in gender-sensitive services is necessary to appropriately address their needs.

"For all people who use drugs, stigma and discrimination are public health issues creating barriers precisely where more support is needed. Harm reduction services are equipped to address these gaps, as non-judgmental, communitybased service delivery is among the core principles of harm reduction."

Harm Reduction International (2020). Global State of Harm Reduction 2020. London: Harm Reduction International.

9. Needle And Syringe Service Programs Worldwide

"As of 2020, 86 countries globally have at least one NSP [Needle and Syringe Program], though on the ground this has meant NSP closures and openings in several countries since 2018. Algeria opened NSPs in the Middle East and North Africa region, but in Palestine and Jordan, NSPs stopped completely; in Asia, NSPs closed in Mongolia; in sub-Saharan Africa, NSPs opened in Benin, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, while in Uganda NSPs ceased to operate. Eurasia, North America, Oceania and Western Europe remained the regions where almost all countries with reported injecting drug use implemented NSPs.[1]

"The availability of NSPs, however, does not ensure adequate coverage and accessibility. There is a large disparity in NSP implementation globally. While NSPs in Australia distribute almost 700 syringes per person who injects drugs per year, in Benin in sub-Saharan Africa, only ten syringes are given in a month to a client visiting the programme.2 In Macau, Asia, the number of NSPs has decreased since 2018, and only one NSP is still open. While NSPs are available in the majority of countries in Eurasia, there are several countries where coverage is very limited as services are implemented solely on a volunteer basis.[3,4] New estimates from India suggest that just 35 syringes (down from 250) are distributed per person who injects drugs, despite an increase in the number of NSP sites in the country. Coverage could also vary within a country. In Western Europe, for example, the coverage of NSPs in urban areas is sufficient and there are no major barriers in access, but rural areas have less coverage in many countries (e.g. Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal).[5–9] Rural populations are also underserved in both the United States and Canada, and an uneven geographical distribution of NSPs is a problem in Australia and New Zealand.[10,11]"

Harm Reduction International (2020). Global State of Harm Reduction 2020. London: Harm Reduction International.

10. Stigma And Discrimination Hinder Access To Harm Reduction Services

"Stigma and discrimination against people who inject drugs continue to exist and hinder service access in all contexts,[12–15] [16] affecting organisations implementing NSPs. In South Africa, for example, one NSP was closed in 2018 due to concerns of insufficient stakeholder consultation and the systems available for waste management.[17] Though the service was reinstated in late June 2020, programme staff have yet to reach the previous cohort of clients that had accessed the service before its closure.[18]

"In addition to geographical gaps and stigmatisation of people who inject drugs, there are groups of people who inject drugs that experience barriers to access. The lack of appropriate, gender-specific programmes for women who use drugs is a recurring issue throughout most regions. Furthermore, the needs of Indigenous people are not appropriately met in Oceania,[10,11] and there are reports of migrants who inject drugs facing barriers to accessing harm reduction services in Western Europe.[6,9,19] NSP provision for people who use stimulants is suboptimal in many regions despite the risks involved. In Western Europe, for example, stimulant injecting has been associated with local HIV outbreaks in five countries in the past five years.[20–22]"

Harm Reduction International (2020). Global State of Harm Reduction 2020. London: Harm Reduction International.

11. Few Stimulant-Specific Harm Reduction Responses Implemented Globally

"Few stimulant-specific harm reduction responses are implemented globally. Though NSPs and drug consumption rooms (DCRs) can be accessed by people who use stimulants, existing harm reduction services might not always be adequate for their needs.[34] For example, stimulant use is associated with more frequent injection than opioids, but limits in NSPs on the number of syringes that can be acquired at any one time represent a particular barrier for those injecting stimulants. Stimulants are also more likely to be smoked or inhaled than opioids, but not all DCRs permit inhalation on premises, and smoking equipment is rarely distributed. However, safer smoking kits for crack cocaine, cocaine paste and ATS are distributed in several territories, including Portugal[5][35] and harm reduction programmes for people who use non-injectable cocaine derivatives are in place in several countries in Latin America. There have been promising pilot programmes in Asia focusing on people who use methamphetamine, including outreach programmes distributing safer smoking kits, plastic straws, harm reduction education, and access to testing and treatment for HIV, hepatitis C, TB and other sexually transmitted diseases (see page 75 in Asia Chapter 2.1).

"Drug checking (services that enable people to voluntarily get the contents of their drugs analysed) is an important harm reduction intervention for people who use stimulants. These services are implemented in at least nine countries in Western Europe3, are available in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and are increasingly available in Latin America4. Eight countries in Eurasia5 have some form of drug checking services through distribution of reagent test kits at music festivals and nightlife settings. Other methods of drug checking include the use of mobile testing equipment to determine the contents of what is sold using tiny samples of the product, allowing for identification of both drugs and contaminants. Though availability of drug checking is growing globally from a low baseline, implementation faces serious legal barriers in many countries as it involves handling controlled substances, and drug checking services often require formal exemption from drug laws in order to operate legally.

"No approved substitution therapy for ATS exists, although pharmacologically-assisted treatment with methylphenidate for ATS users was authorised by the government in Czechia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in Canada, the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use released interim clinical guidance recommending the prescription of dexamphetamine and methylphenidate to people who use stimulants.[36]"

Harm Reduction International (2020). Global State of Harm Reduction 2020. London: Harm Reduction International.

12. Successful Operation of an Unsanctioned Supervised Consumption Site in the US

"In total, there were 10,514 injections and 33 opioid-involved overdoses over 5 years, all of which were reversed by naloxone administered by trained staff (Table 1). No person who overdosed was transferred to an outside medical institution, and there were no deaths. The number of overdoses increased over the years of operation, due partially to the number of injections increasing over the same period of time (Fig. S1 in the Supplementary Appendix). The types of drugs used at the site changed over the 5 years of operation, with a steady increase in the proportion of injections involving the combination of opioids and stimulants, from 5% in 2014 to 60% in 2019 (Fig. S2).

"Although this evaluation was limited to one city and one site that is unsanctioned, and therefore the findings cannot be generalized, our results suggest that implementing sanctioned safe consumption sites in the United States could reduce mortality from opioid-involved overdose. Sanctioning sites could allow persons to link to other medical and social services, including treatment for substance use, and facilitate rigorous evaluation of their implementation and effect on reducing problems such as public injection of drugs and improperly discarded syringes."

Kral, Alex H., Lambdin, Barrot H., Wenger, Lynn D., Davidson, Pete J. Evaluation of an Unsanctioned Safe Consumption Site in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine. July 8, 2020. 10.1056/NEJMc2015435.