The United States is experiencing its worst-yet substance abuse epidemic. In a time like this when our country is at risk, broadly expansive solutions must be arrived at. One debate is the constant back and forth of which is more valuable in addressing addiction: “harm reduction” or, “drug rehabilitation.”
The International Harm Reduction Association defines “harm reduction” as the policies or programs that aim at reducing the risk factor of using substances, as opposed to trying to get people to stop using substances entirely. Harm reduction is essentially a format of providing “safe substance abuse” and a monitored environment for addicts to use drugs in. Controversial at best, but not without its merits according to some.
On “drug rehabilitation” the National Institute on Drug Abuse defines the term as a methodology for helping addicted individuals to, “Stop compulsive drug seeking and use.” This is drug treatment in a nutshell, i.e. the effort of helping people to completely remove substance abuse from their day-to-day lives, for the rest of their lives. Extensive, difficult, and a lot of work, yes, but certainly life-changing.
As one can see from their definitions alone, the above methods of addressing substance abuse are essentially polar opposites. On the one hand, you have harm reduction, a belief system (and really an admittance for that matter) that people will abuse drugs regardless of anything their loved ones do to stop them. It is a sort of surrender if you will, an assumption that “There will always be drug addicts.” It’s a concept that we should do something to just curb risky drug abuse behavior as opposed to ending drug abuse completely. Harm reduction promotes creating “safe zones” where addicts can come to a location and be given free, clean needles and allowed to use substances in a monitored setting.
Harm reduction is a new approach in the U.S., though it is not new globally. Harm reduction originated in European countries in the 1980s, as European leaders sought immediate solutions for combatting a rapidly growing HIV epidemic. In fact, needle exchange problems and methadone maintenance programs which have been in the U.S. for some time were born from European harm reduction ideology.
Harm reduction when used in full indicates a total admittance that addicts will be addicts and, “Once an addict, always an addict.” The problem is though, it may make drug use safer and it may help to prevent disease and overdose, but it is still drug use, and there is no sugarcoating that truth.
Drug rehabilitation, on the other hand, has the belief system that something can be done about drug addiction, no matter how terrible it might be. Drug rehabilitation utilizes the concept that addicts made negative choices that brought them to a position of addiction, and that positive choices can reverse that trend.
The focus of drug rehabilitation is on sobriety, on a complete cessation of all drug abuse. No matter the specific form of treatment used, the underlying belief of drug rehabilitation is that the only sure way to maintain a sober lifestyle is through complete abstinence from substances.
Harm reduction is not the perfect solution to a complex problem. Does it help in some ways? One could say so. On the other hand, some pundits of drug rehabilitation would say that harm reduction is a method of enablement. But if harm reduction centers save lives through the prevention of overdose and the spread of infectious diseases, there is some value in that. But is harm reduction a replacement for drug rehabilitation? Absolutely not. To truly take charge of one’s own life and beat addiction