Get help today 888-341-7785 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

The Pros and Cons of Harm Reduction Treatment

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “harm reduction services save lives by being available and accessible in a manner that emphasizes the need for humility and compassion toward people who use drugs.”1

The services that comprise harm reduction programs increase access to healthcare, social services, and treatment, and play a major role in the prevention of drug-related deaths.1

In this article, we will define and describe harm reduction services, go over pros and cons of harm reduction treatment, and talk about drug and alcohol addiction treatment options.

What Is Harm Reduction Treatment?

Harm reduction treatment is a sometimes controversial method of rehabilitation typically related to drug addiction and sex education.

Examples of harm minimization public health policies could be safe sex programs in schools, free condom distribution, or safety tips/health education for street-based sex workers.

In terms of drug misuse services, examples include methadone clinics, needle exchange programs, or supervised injection facilities.

Harm Reduction History Explained

Opiate misuse has been a problem in Western society since doctors started overprescribing the medication in the 19th century. However, harm reduction treatments did not come into focus in the United States until the AIDs epidemic of the late 1980s.

The Health Omnibus Program Extension Act of 1988 made it illegal to distribute syringes. Harm reduction advocates and AIDs activists fought back citing evidence that needle exchanges reduced the spread of HIV and did not increase the overall rate of drug use.

Harm Reduction Pros and Cons

The main point in favor of drug harm reduction is that it dramatically reduces the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. In communities where needle exchanges are illegal, individuals tend to share needles due to a lack of supplies and education.

Canadian Press reported the findings of a 15-year study conducted in Vancouver from 1996 to 2011. Co-director of the Urban Health Research Initiative, Dr. Thomas Kerr, explained that Vancouver declared a public health emergency during the 1990s due to a record high spread of HIV infection. By 2011, the number of people who said they shared needles dropped from 40% to 1.7%.

Benefits of Harm Reduction

In addition to reducing the risk of infectious diseases, such as HIV, viral hepatitis, and bacterial and fungal infections, harm reduction strategies have shown to provide many other benefits, including:

  • Building community and increasing protective factors.
  • Connecting people with educational services related to overdose, counseling, and referrals for infectious diseases and substance use disorders.
  • Making opioid overdose reversal medications (naloxone) available to those who are at risk of overdose.
  • Promoting a philosophy of hope and healing.
  • Reducing overdose deaths.
  • Reducing the stigma that is often associated with substance use and co-occurring disorders.

Cons of Harm Reduction

Harm reduction centers are common in Canada, Europe, and the United Kingdom. In the United States, residents remain divided over the effectiveness of such programs. Opponents of harm reduction services argue that giving clean syringes to people who misuse drugs encourages negative behavior. Some claim that in cities where they give away hypodermic needles, there has been a surge in demand that must point to higher rates of drug use.

How Harm Reduction Programs Work

Harm reduction services may vary depending on geographical location and the needs of a certain community. In some situations, it may be condom distribution and a pamphlet on safe sex. Or it may be a dose of methadone to help with withdrawal symptoms.

Most major cities have some type of needle exchange program in which an individual may exchange used syringes for new ones. People are educated on how to avoid overdose, infection, abscesses, and the transmission of Hepatitis C and HIV. Syringe distribution has had success with reducing the spread of deadly viruses.

Other forms of harm reduction such as supervised injection facilities are slow to happen in the U.S. However, in 2021, New York City opened the first publicly recognized safe injection site. The idea behind supervised injection facilities is that by giving people who are addicted to opioids clean doses in a controlled environment, they reduce the negative consequences associated with street drugs. There are supervised injection facilities in Holland, Germany, and Canada.

Find the Addiction Treatment You Need

Harm reduction is a crucial part of the country’s current approach to addressing substance use disorders.1 Through prevention, treatment, and recovery, individuals can overcome their addiction and achieve greater overall health and well-being.1

A primary component of your addiction treatment plan may include medications for substance use disorder, sometimes referred to as medication-assisted treatment or MAT. Some common medications that are utilized during detox and treatment are buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone.

If you or someone you love is ready to begin treatment, reach out to the American Addiction Centers (AAC) 24/7 addiction hotline at . Our staff can help you find local treatment centers and/or verify your insurance coverage.

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.