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 STI’s. And, when people decide to use drugs, providing drug checking services, clean needles and safe injection sites, and unbiased, factual information can help minimize risks associated with drug use. This is harm reduction.
Much of the risks associated with illicit drug use is 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 black 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–mass incarceration, racial injustice, empowered organized criminals, corrupt governments, violence, and assault on the environment–just to name a few. One only need 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 in 2001, decriminalized the use of all drugs. What happened next was remarkable–usage decreased substantially and so did overdose deaths.
All of this is said to really drive home the point: drug use will always happen, regardless of the laws in place. And without proper regulation of the black market, those who choose to use drugs face higher risks of death 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 rather than simply ignoring or condemning it. So, by providing harm reduction to drug users, it is not encouraging people to use drugs, it is meeting people where they’re at, and providing them the tools and information they need to make healthier and informed lifestyle choices.
Contrary to what some may think, most drug overdose deaths are unintended. Also contrary to what some may think, drug users are people, too, but who have been unfairly stigmatized in society based on 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 is for a multitude of reasons–for pleasure, for personal growth, to dull physical or emotional pain, for ceremonial reasons–everything that comes with 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 in 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 its citizens safe. For the first time this summer, some of Britain’s largest festivals and live music events are aiming to introduce drug testing for attendees with the support of local police forces. Last year, The Loop ran the scheme for the first time at a UK music festival where roughly 200 festival goers tested their drugs at Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire. “It’s really exciting that police are prioritizing health and safety over criminal justice at festivals,” stated Fiona Measham, founder of The Loop.
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 in 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.