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What is Harm Reduction?

The International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA) defines harm reduction as the ‘policies, programmes and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable or unwilling to stop. The defining features are the focus on the prevention of harm, rather than on the prevention of drug use itself, and the focus on people who continue to use drugs.’

Harm reduction has been a principle of Australian governments’ approach to drug use for several decades, beginning in the 1980s when the first needle syringe program was first introduced.

FAQ

Does harm reduction encourage drug use?

The evidence is quite clear that harm reduction programs, such as needle and syringe programs or heroin prescription programs, do not lead to an increase in drug use. There is research that shows such programs can actually lead to a decrease in drug use.

Does harm reduction save money?

Some economists argue that harm reduction programs, such as needle and syringe programs, have seen the most cost effective use of government money in Australia’s history. $27 is returned for each $1 spent. The money we spend on policing and prisons for drug users is certainly much less cost-effective.

How many people are still alive because of harm reduction programs?

Some studies have determined that thousands of Australian lives have been saved and many more improved because of harm reduction programs. Globally, the number is difficult to quantify but it is reasonable to assume that probably millions of lives have been saved.

How have needle and syringe programs reduced HIV?

One of the most efficient transmission means of HIV and other blood-borne viruses is via used needles and syringes. Needle and syringe programs allow people who inject drugs the opportunity to protect their own health by getting access to sterile injecting equipment. The programs also bring many people who inject drugs into contact with health professionals for the first time in many years. Today, Australia has one of the world’s lowest rates of HIV among people who inject drugs and the evidence is clear that this success is a result of the early introduction of needle and syringe programs, as well as peer-based organisation involvement.

Does HRA advocate legalising illicit drugs?

HRA believes that criminalising people because they use drugs is actually more harmful and counterproductive. This is because it prevents users from accessing health and support services in a timely manner, jeopardizes the wellbeing of users as well as their communities, and necessitates extremely high expenditures on policing and correctional services. In contrast, decriminalizing use allows governments to redirect funds towards prevention, support and treatment, resulting in improved social and economic outcomes for individuals, communities and societies.

Does HRA advocate decriminalising use of all drugs, even those with serious consequences like ice?

HRA advocates for the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use. Drug use, if it becomes problematic, should be treated as a health problem, not a legal problem. Treatment of drug use as a legal problem typically results in a number of other harms, such as a criminal record that limits employment, travel and other opportunities for a lifetime. Despite the claims often made to the contrary, there is advice, assistance and treatment available for people using ice or any other drug. Again, the evidence is quite clear that the best investment a country can make in reducing drug use and its associated harms is via education and treatment, not law enforcement.

Does HRA condone drug use?

HRA neither condemns nor condones drug use. People throughout history have used psychoactive substances and will continue to do so. Rather than cast judgment on people who use drugs, HRA believes that we should reduce the harms associated with drug use and provide opportunities for people to stop using drugs if they choose to do so.

Won’t decriminalisation lead to higher levels of drug use?

The research is quite clear that drug use has not increased in countries and jurisdictions where drug use has been decriminalised. What does increase is the number of people seeking assistance and treatment.

How do you distinguish between drug use and abuse?

We don’t. Drugs are used with minimal or no problems by the vast majority of people. Think of how many people consume alcohol without incident. Some people do develop problematic use of drugs at times and they need to be the focus of our health based efforts.

Won’t decriminalising drugs increase crime rates?

Some studies have shown that crime is reduced by the introduction of harm reduction policies and decriminalisation of drug use.

What will be the impacts of harm reduction policies on policing and road safety?

Harm reduction policies do not encourage or condone unsafe driving practices. Just as people are able to consume alcohol but must not drive whilst impaired, similar rules would apply to all drugs that impair one’s ability to drive.

What will be the impacts of harm reduction policies on our health care system?

There are likely to be more people willing to seek help and treatment but the costs of this increase would be offset by both reduced expenditure within the criminal justice system and longer-term health savings from earlier treatment. For instance, increasing access to pharmacotherapy programs, assisting peer-based user organisations and establishing needle and syringe programs all contributed to our low infection rates that have saved millions of dollars.

What harm reduction programs does Australia have in place now?

Currently we have in place a network of community- and pharmacy-based needle and syringe programs, as well as methadone and buprenorphine programs for people using opioids. There is also a single supervised injecting facility in Sydney. There are numerous treatment programs for people using methamphetamine, including innovative clinics that provide controlled management of problematic use. Importantly, we also have a number of national peer based organisations that provide a vital communication link for drug users.

What harm reduction programs should Australia introduce?

Some of the key evidence-based programs that need to be introduced include heroin prescription programs, decriminalisation of personal use of drugs and prison-based needle and syringe programs.

Isn’t harm reduction against our international treaties?

The drug law reforms introduced in many countries in the past few years show that harm reduction policies are not inconsistent with the international treaties. These treaties were primarily established to reduce the trafficking of drugs and not to punish individuals using drugs. The treaties are also largely out of date and have become an obstacle to effective global drug reform efforts.

What can I do to help harm reduction policies and programs become more available in Australia?

Join HRA and have your voice heard!