The term Harm Reduction refers to a set of principles and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with substance use, without requiring abstinence. A harm reduction approach focuses on the health, rights, and social wellbeing of people who use drugs, instead on reducing or eliminating drug use. This approach recognizes that people are experts on their own body, goals, and substance use journey. Consequently, a harm reduction approach meets people where they are at and works to empower people to make own choices regarding their substance use. Finally, harm reduction relies on a belief in the rights of people who use drugs, and is a strategy that upholds the right of people who use drugs to self-determination and dignity while receiving support in meeting their self-identified needs.
Harm Reduction as a movement operates on an individual, community, and systems level. For individuals, harm reduction may look like day-to-day practices that help people stay safe while they use drugs, as well as support in accessing essential resources such as food and housing. For communities, harm reduction involves advocacy for people who use drugs in various settings, and challenging policies that create barriers to access. Finally, harm reduction involves a system-wide movement for improved drug policies, access to basic needs, and other social changes.
Harm reduction originated in multiple movements that emerged across the United States, including the Black Panther Party’s survival programs, the Young Lords’ launch of an acupuncture program for heroin users, the women’s health movement, and the grassroots response to the AIDS crisis. These movements included strategies such a distributing supplies for safe use, opening up safe consumption sites, offering community support, practicing mutual aid, and acts of civil disobedience. People who use drugs have always been the key leaders and participants in harm reduction. Harm reduction strategies used to this day were developed by people who use drugs, to protect themselves and their communities. More recently, various medical, non-profit, and social service organizations have taken on a harm reduction approach to reduce the harms associated with drug use.