Differences and Similarities Between Harm Reduction Programs and Substance Use Treatment Programs

"While cultural and structural differences continue to divide many substance use treatment and harm reduction services, the needs and goals of people who seek these two services may have always been much less distinctive. For example, many who attend substance use treatment continue to use drugs [5]. Similarly, many who attend harm reduction programs seek to engage in treatment at some points [6]. Indeed, clients of SSPs are approximately five times more likely to engage in treatment and three times more likely to stop using drugs than persons who do not access SSPs [7]. In recent decades, harm reduction and treatment goals have become increasingly blurred with the growing uptake of medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD). In particular, methadone and buprenorphine are used by some with a goal of abstaining from opioid use; for others, MOUD are used to help mitigate withdrawal and overdose risk without abstaining from drug use [8, 9].

"Despite this reality, programs that successfully combine treatment and harm reduction services and principles are often the exception rather than the rule [8, 10, 11]. Yet, the increasing severity of the opioid overdose crisis in North America and the rise in viral and bacterial infections among PWUD [12–14] have led to a recognition of the urgent need to utilize multiple approaches toward the joint goal of reducing drug-related harms [15]. In particular, concerns about the increasingly lethal opioid supply [16] have emphasized the need to use any available evidence-based strategies known to reduce opioid-related overdose mortality. These concerns have encouraged more treatment providers to incorporate harm reduction approaches (e.g., naloxone distribution and overdose education) [17], and harm reduction providers to integrate MOUD as a direct service [18]."


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