The argument goes something like this: if you provide harm reduction services to drug users, you are condoning that behavior through encouragement. Is that truly the case, or is this argument made because of the stigma associated with drug use?
If someone is going to be exposed to the sun for long periods of time, increasing their risk of melanoma, they can minimize this risk by applying, and then reapplying, sunscreen. When someone gets into their car, they can choose to wear a seatbelt to minimize the risk of death or injury in the event of a car accident. Before having sex, a condom can be used to minimize the risk of unwanted pregnancy and the spread of STIs. And when people decide to use drugs, providing drug checking services, clean needles, safe injection sites, and unbiased, factual information can help minimize risks associated with drug use. This is harm reduction.
Many of the risks associated with illicit drug use are caused and perpetuated by the prohibitionist laws currently in place. These abstinence-based laws do nothing to curb drug use, but instead continue to proliferate a thriving and highly adulterated illicit market. Take, for example, alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s. Not only did it not work, it caused massive unintended consequences — bootlegging, corruption of law enforcement, and the decline in amusement and entertainment industries, just to name a few.
Like alcohol prohibition, the War on Drugs has egregious and inhumane consequences, namely mass incarceration, racial injustice, empowered organized criminals, corrupt governments, violence, and assault on the environment. One only needs to look at the history of drug prohibition to understand its racist beginnings. The War on Drugs ignores scientific fact and addresses drug use as a criminal matter, when in reality it is a public health issue. Portugal recognized this, and decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. What happened next was remarkable: Usage decreased substantially, as did overdose deaths.
All of this is said to drive home the point: Drug use will always exist, regardless of the laws in place. And without proper regulation of the illicit market, those who choose to use drugs face higher risks of death and injury due to adulterated substances. This is why harm reduction is vital; it accepts, for better or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of the world, and it addresses this fact by working to minimize its harmful effects (and maximize its beneficial ones) rather than simply ignoring or condemning it. Providing harm reduction to drug users is not encouraging people to use drugs — it’s meeting people where they’re at, and providing them with the tools and information they need to make healthier and more informed choices about their lives and bodies.
Contrary to what some may think, most drug overdose deaths are unintentional. More importantly, drug users are people too. People who use drugs have been unfairly stigmatized by society because of fear-based approaches to drug use. People engage in risky behaviors all the time, like driving and sunbathing. When someone engages in drug use, it can be for a multitude of reasons — pleasure, personal growth, dulling physical or emotional pain, ceremonial reasons. All of these things are critical parts of the human experience. And, more often than not, drug use is not problematic. So until global drug policies reflect reality, harm reduction will continue to be necessary for saving lives, not condoning risky behavior.
As America revamps its draconian drug enforcement tactics, other countries are starting to recognize and work to implement harm reduction strategies to keep their citizens safe. In recent years, some of Britain’s largest festivals and live music events have aimed to introduce drug testing for attendees with the support of local police forces. “It’s really exciting that police are prioritizing health and safety over criminal justice at festivals,” stated Fiona Measham, founder of The Loop. (The Loop recently offered roughly 200 festival goers the opportunity to their drugs at Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire.)
As drug use continues and the opioid crisis grows, harm reduction will remain a vital service for people across the world. Until laws reflect reality, harm reduction organizations like DanceSafe and The Loop will continue to be necessary for helping to save lives at festivals. Harm reduction does not condone risky behavior — it addresses it. It is time to have an honest dialogue about drug use.