Harm Reduction

I talk a lot about harm reduction in my blog, but it’s important enough to demand it’s own section. Harm Reduction should be a vital part of any IV drug users daily life. But unfortunately, it seems that many people don’t take advantage of these services, even when they are available in their own backyard. I assume this has more to do with a lack of understanding, rather than a lack of personal concern or outright will to do self-harm. So, in this section my intent is to provide as much information as possible about harm reduction and all of its encompassing services.

What is harm reduction exactly? Harm reduction is a public health movement that reduces the harmful consequences associated with illegal activities. While it’s most commonly associated with IV drug use, it extends to all forms of recreational drug use and encompasses sex work and other high-risk behavior as well. Unfortunately, harm reduction is a controversial movement. Since it is designed to assist people who choose to practice illegal activities, some critics believe that is sends the message that engaging in these activities is acceptable. I do not believe this is the case at all. Almost every American is raised to believe that drug use is dangerous, if not outright wrong and immoral. Nobody growing up with these values being shoved down their throat, whether at home, at school, from the community or government, is going to hear about harm reduction practices and suddenly think that it’s okay to stick a needle in their arm. It’s a ludicrous idea that shows just how little these critics think of the general population’s intelligence and common sense.

Harm reduction studies have proven time after time that the presence of these facilities has never increased drug use in their surrounding areas. They have, however, helped reduce the risk of many communicable diseases, cut down on injuries and alignments due to unclean equipment and have helped save many lives in the current drug using communities.

Even worse than these critics are the ones who would openly abolish harm reduction facilities as a punitive measure against drug using communities. More than a few politicians and activists have expressed their lack of public empathy by stating that the IV drug using community should not have access to these services because they deserve what they get and it would be in the public’s best interest if they all wipe each other out. I hope this is a view point that all my readers find as revolting as I do. I don’t even want to waste any more space on the subject refuting this argument.

Luckily, we have some stellar, hardworking people on our side. My hope is that the general public is beginning to understand just how large the countries drug using population actually is and how close drug use is to every home. As this knowledge spreads, both regular citizens and politicians alike are beginning to support this cause. Unfortunately, its an uphill battle and we’re still grossly outnumbered by the more draconian population. But all major political movements have begun with grassroots efforts. At least now we are starting to address the issue on a nationwide scale. New laws which support the harm reduction movement are being enacted across the country regularly. We can only hope the trend continues and that the United States will follow in the footsteps of some of the more progressive countries who have very liberal, yet successful, harm reduction policies.

So, what exactly is harm reduction and how does it help the drug using communities, and thus our communities as a whole? One of the things most commonly associated with harm reduction is needle exchanges. These facilities provide a safe place for IV drug users to dispose of their used syringes and allows them to exchange dirty syringes for new ones, free of charge. Not only does this one thing single-handedly eliminate the threat of blood-born diseases like AIDS and Hepatitis C, it also helps cuts back on infection and other health problems associated with repetitive, dirty needle use, like collapsed veins. It also gets used needles off the streets and out of harms way and dispenses of them appropriately,  making needle exchanges a boon to the whole community, not just injecting drug users.  Another service that many harm reduction facilities provide is access to Naloxone, the overdose prevention drug. It baffles me that states are voting to approve pharmacy distribution of Naloxone, when it has been available at many harm reduction facilities, free of charge, for quite some time. But I’ll still hand it to California for paving the way and bringing this topic to the public’s attention. On top of needle exchanges and access to Naloxone, many facilities offer a wide range of harm reduction support, including:

  • Free injection supplies (cookers, cotton, water, alcohol, tourniquets, etc.)
  • Access to treatment options like Methadone and Suboxone
  • Free condoms and other supplies to ensure the safety of sex workers, including sex-education classes
  • Free HIV and Hepatitis C testing
  • Individual and group therapy sessions
  • Classes on safely injecting
  • Overdose prevention classes
  • Free access to a doctor who specializes in the needs of IV drug users
  • Referrals to other community services, like rehabs and psychiatric care
  • Physical fitness classes, like yoga, Pilates and the like
  • Free acupuncture
  • Regular 12-step and non-12 step recovery groups

And the list could go on and on, depending on the facility. Obviously, not every harm reduction facility will offer all of these services. In fact, many needle exchanges are severely underfunded and serve such a large geographical area that it would be unrealistic for them to offer much more than the basics. Unfortunately, these full-service facilities are mostly located near metropolitan centers, since cities tend to see the biggest need for them. But small, mobile needle exchanges are becoming much more common. These are trailer-sized facilities that service a different area each day of the week, making their services available to those unable to commute to a city center. There are also mobile trailers that provide free HIV and/or Hep C testing, one parks in front of my building at least once a week.

Unfortunately, there are still many states that have banned needle exchanges outright. And even more that ban state funding, requiring many of them to be funded privately. Many states have also made the possession of syringes without a prescription illegal. To check your states policy, visit http://www.drugpolicy.org and scroll to the bottom of the left panel. This should give you a good idea of your states position on needle exchanges, treatment programs and even marijuana laws.

Harm reduction isn’t just for IV drug users, the movement covers the safe use of all recreational drugs. In addition, harm reduction encompasses the decriminalization of drugs and sex-work, helping to eliminate some of the high-risk involved in these activities. It also includes help for those who inflict self-harm and those who need assistance coming off psychoactive drugs.

As harm reduction becomes a bigger issue in the news and more and more people are seeing how critically important these facilities are, not only to addicts, but to their community as a whole, more lenient laws are being enacted. Hopefully the federal government will see this progressive trend and follow suit. As of now, there is still a ban on federal funding for needle exchanges. Many see lifting the ban as a taking a more lax position on the War on Drugs. Since The War on Drugs is a war fought against the governments own people, I can only hope that they do lax up and realize that no good can come from condemning their citizens. It will only tax our jails further, inflate medical costs across the nation and cause countless families unbearable trauma and grief.

Being an IV drug user, harm reduction is personal to me and cause that is very near and dear to my heart. Rather than a mere post here and there, I wanted to make this a permanent section of my blog, to be undated frequently. I’m rarely thankful for any news that has to do with heroin, since it so frequently portrays users in a negative light. But as these news stories break, it provides a forum for harm reduction to be discussed openly. In this section, I will be highlighting harm reduction in the news, as well as some of the people at the forefront of the movement, our war heroes against the War on Drugs. I’ll also post harm reduction tips and some of the best harm reduction websites to visit.  Please have patience with me as I continue to aggregate information and complete this section in its entirety! If you have any suggestions or ideas of things you would like to see discussed in this section, please email me at deemsterdiva@gmail.com. I’d love to hear your ideas!

Remember, harm reduction is a way of life, not just a good theory. It’s something that needs to be an integral part of every drugs users life. If we want to see a shift in the way society views us, we need to be smart, respectful and dedicated to the overall well-being and health of our entire community. It might seem cliche, but we need to be the change that we want to see in the world. By keeping our streets clean and needle free, our bodies as healthy as possible and attitude respectful, we can show the world one-by-one that we’re not all self-centered, lowlife junky/tweeker scum. We do have a voice and it needs to be heard. Because track marks do not define the worth of a person. We are just as valuable as any other member of society. But that change has to start with us.