Incongruences Between Services Offered By Substance Use Programs and Their Clients

"Findings from our study illustrate that many substance use programs do not fit directly into a binary of “harm reduction” or “treatment.” Most of the participating programs in this study reported offering a spectrum of harm reduction and treatment services. Still, SSPs [Syringe Service Programs] were most likely to offer harm reduction services, MOUD [Medications for Opioid Use Disorder] programs were most likely to offer treatment services, and those characterized as offering both MOUD & SSPs were most likely to offer the broadest services. Program clients also did not fit into the supposed binary of “active drug use” vs. “abstinence.” In fact, of the clients who attended MOUD only programs, nearly three quarters reported using non-prescribed drugs in the past week, and more than half reported injecting drugs in the past week; these rates were similar to those reported by clients who attended combined MOUD & SSP programs. Meanwhile, more than 40% of those who attended SSP only programs reported attending some type of drug treatment service in the past month.

"Our results reveal some important incongruencies between services being offered by substance use programs and characteristics and behaviors reported by clients who attend such programs. For example, while three-quarters of MOUD program clients reported using non-prescribed drugs (one-quarter reported using opioids), only two-thirds of these programs offered overdose education or naloxone distribution and one-third offered fentanyl testing or test strips. This is highly concerning given the high prevalence of fentanyl in both the opioid and non-opioid illicit drug supplies [21] and may partly reflect the presence of policies that criminalize possession of fentanyl test strips in some of the sampled states [22]. Moreover, half of clients who attended MOUD programs without SSP or wound care actively injected drugs. While it is possible that these clients seek safe injection supplies elsewhere, a minority (14%) reported visiting an SSP in the past month.

"There were also discrepancies in services offered by SSPs relative to client-reported service utilization. Of clients recruited from SSPs without MOUD, 22% indicated receiving methadone and 8% reported receiving buprenorphine in the past month. This implies clients are either seeking these medications via other service providers or acquiring them on the street, which has been reported to often be easier than enrolling in formal treatment [9, 23, 24]. Roughly half of MOUD programs offered same-day treatment initiation. Additionally, SSP programs were reaching the highest risk population that with the greatest rates of active drug use. Yet, on average, these programs reported having the smallest number of staff and the least available treatment or social services relative to the other programs types. The limited workforce and services offered may reflect the limited budgets often used to operate these programs. Many harm reduction services operate independently from the medical system and are not eligible for insurance reimbursement. Additionally, programs have been historically banned from accessing federal and local funds for SSPs; programs have had to depend on scarce funds acquired a combination of small grants, individual donations, and charitable foundations [4, 25]. The Biden Administration’s 2021 American Rescue Act was the first federal action to allocate targeted funding toward harm reduction services and SSPs [25, 26]. While this was an important step to potentially help scale up these services, local and national resistance and stigma to these programs remains persistent (highlighted by the recent resistance to federal funding sterile pipes [27]). Continued efforts to combat ongoing stigma and political resistance to these programs are needed [25]."


Krawczyk N, Allen ST, Schneider KE, et al. Intersecting substance use treatment and harm reduction services: exploring the characteristics and service needs of a community-based sample of people who use drugs. Harm Reduct J. 2022;19(1):95. Published 2022 Aug 24. doi:10.1186/s12954-022-00676-8