What is Harm Reduction? A Quick Overview

There are various approaches that organizations, communities, and individuals can take to reduce the impact of substance use disorder, minimize overdoses, and help those who struggle with addiction overcome it. Different methods can positively impact those in need, from in-patient rehabilitation programs to school drug education programs.

One of the strategies used to curb the harmful effects of substance use disorder is harm reduction. Harm reduction aims to protect the health, life, and dignity of individuals addicted to drugs and takes a different approach than many others, which rely on total abstinence as the key.

Learn more about what harm reduction is, what principles it encompasses, the ultimate goals of harm reduction in a broad sense, and what harm reduction means for those with substance use disorder.

What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is a set of practices, programs, and resources that work in tandem to minimize the harmful impacts related to drug use, as well as the current policies and laws surrounding drugs.

Harm reduction’s foundation is in human rights and justice, focusing on making positive change and leaving judgment behind in favor of an empathetic understanding, without discrimination, coercion, or complex and often unrealistic expectations that one must stop using drugs entirely to qualify for support.

Harm reduction meets addicted individuals where they currently are and works in an evidence-based way to make lasting changes to individual health and community wellness.

There’s no specific definition for harm reduction, and some organizations and people interpret and apply it differently. However, they often include drug testing, clean needle programs, overdose prevention, safe drug use education, social and psychological support, and non-exclusionary housing. 

What are the Principles of Harm Reduction?

While there’s no quick definition of harm reduction, several principles guide the ethos behind the approach.

Harm reduction principles include:

Respecting the Rights of Those Who Use Drugs

One notable difference between harm reduction and other approaches is the fundamental integration of human rights protection for people who use drugs, their families, and their loved ones. 

It outlines that using drugs should not lead to the forfeit of human rights, including the right to privacy, social services, health, absence of cruel treatment, and freedom from arbitrary detention or imprisonment.

Committing to Social Justice

Harm reduction seeks to give everyone access to the resources and services they need, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality, work, or economic status.

Avoiding Stigma

Harm reduction practitioners avoid judging anyone who uses drugs or adding to the stigma around drug use. 

All language used should avoid stigmatizing substances or people who use them and be respectful.

Committing to Evidence

Harm reduction works due to evidence showing real, cost-effective, effective, and safe impacts in all settings.

What are the Goals of Harm Reduction?

There are three primary goals of the harm reduction strategy to reduce the negative impacts of substance use. 

The goals are to find alternatives that prevent or end drug use, reduce the negative impact of enforced drug laws and policies, keep drug users alive and encourage positive life change.

Encouraging Positive Change

The first goal of creating positive change is keeping those who use drugs alive, and the second goal is to encourage positive change in many forms. Steps may include:

  • Reducing the amount of substances taken at one time
  • Testing substances for safety before consumption
  • Helping people who want to stop to cease using drugs altogether

Harm reduction promotes all of the positive actions above.

Reduce Harm from Drug Laws

Harm reduction aims to improve detrimental drug laws and policies in today’s communities and lessen their harmful effects.

Reducing the criminalization of drug users, corrupt police practices, denial of life-saving care, forced urine testing, and further discrimination helps protect those who need assistance the most.

Many current practices punish people already in the throes of addiction — not help them.

Offer Alternatives

The third goal is to identify and use other alternatives such as treatment programs to help those experiencing problems associated with substance use disorder. 

Proper implementation of alternatives means that entry and acceptance into these programs should be up to the individual, never forced. 

It also encourages other methods and treatments that some individuals may benefit from more than recovery programs, as harm reduction recognizes that only a tiny percentage of people who use drugs can be considered problem users. 

What Does Harm Reduction Mean for People Who Use Substances?

Because of the people-first approach, people who use substances may prefer to seek help through harm reduction programs and organizations more than other drug recovery and drug use reduction programs. 

Harm reduction programs will never exclude someone from care due to drug use, nor will they deny housing or treatment until someone entirely abstains from drug use.

Those who use substances may become more educated about drugs and learn to use them in ways that limit negative experiences or effects, helping them reduce the risk associated with drug use without requiring abstinence.

If you or someone you love struggled with substance use disorder and hasn’t had much success through other programs, a harm reduction approach may be the fresh take needed to make progress towards better health.

Should You Be Concerned About Harm Reduction?

Some people misunderstand harm reduction and its principles. They may mistakenly think a harm reduction approach promotes drug use. That is far from the case. Such people may be concerned that harm reduction practices like clean needle programs and supervised injection sites encourage drugs in communities. However, there’s nothing to fear.

Harm reduction relies on large bodies of evidence that support the effectiveness of its practices and tactics. Studies show that harm reduction can create safer, healthier communities and individuals and lessen the negative impacts of drug use without insisting on the unrealistic goal of eliminating substance use altogether.

Harm reduction recognizes that substance use disorder only affects a small percentage of people and treats the underlying but potentially deadly issues such as laced drugs, overdoses, unhealthy lifestyles, and mental health disorders.


Harm Reduction is a fresh take on substance use treatment, leaving a more severe approach behind in favor of a more compassionate and human rights-oriented approach that does not require abstinence from drugs as a prerequisite for care. To learn more about harm reduction and other treatment options, reach out to the Master Center for Addiction Medicine.