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Nearly everyone involved or associated with addiction recovery agrees that abstinence is the goal for addiction recovery. People who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, their families and loved ones, and addiction treatment professionals all tend to agree that addicted people are best served by removing substances altogether. Yet, what are we to do for those who either cannot or will not give up drinking and using? Can we not still help people like this, and are there people whose struggle with addiction carry extenuating factors which would call for harm reduction rather?
Harm reduction simply means meeting addicts where they are and providing them with what they need to reduce the amount of harm they may do to themselves and others by partially facilitating their addiction. Yes, this means helping them use the drugs under rigorous and controlled conditions. This is obviously controversial.
The dangers of harm reduction seem obvious. Assisting an addicted person, or “enabling” depending on how you approach this subject, will never get them off drugs. The cycle of addiction remains unbroken. Those who advocate harm reduction recognize this fact. The counter claim from harm reduction advocates is that people who are caught up in addiction are not going to stop, at least not immediately, and we can provide assistance to reduce the potential for disease and overdose. In other words, the most dangerous consequences of drug addiction can be prevented by helping active drug users with things like clean needles, preventative medicine, and even administering untainted doses of the drugs.
Another claim form harm reduction advocates is that issues such as poverty, sex-based discrimination, and past trauma impact the addiction issue in ways that are frequently not addressed by traditional addiction treatment programs. Many addicts are debilitated by issues beyond addiction which make it much more difficult to abstain from using. Harm reduction may help people like this stop a downward slide toward inevitable death by reducing the dangers of using drugs without necessarily demanding complete abstinence from drugs.
Generally, the harm reduction advocates accept that drug use and abuse is a fact in our communities. They believe one of the most practical ways of reaching those who are struggling with drugs is to meet drug users “where they are,” so to speak. In this way people can at least be monitored and potentially led toward a more long term solution to their addiction.
As stated at the outset, the most effective way to deal with addiction is through a treatment program designed to eliminate drugs completely. Harm reduction is not necessarily a form of or advocate of moderation. A qualified treatment program which helps interrupt addiction and lead people toward full recovery is still accepted as the best course of action for drug addiction. Harm reduction is controversial. Anyone considering this as a possibility should consult with a health care professional before taking this path. One should tread carefully when considering any new treatment program, especially one that carries such intrinsic risk.
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