Volume 16, Number 2

September 1999

The Reporter title

Involving the Community
Calgary John Howard Society's CommunityConferencing Project

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Drug Misuse in Canada:
Moving Toward a Harm Reduction

In Canada:

black bullet Injection drug use is the second most common method of transmitting HIV in men.
black bullet The criminal justice system spent approximately $400 million on dealing with drug law violations in 1992.
black bullet 80% of offenders report using illicit drugs during their lifetime.

In Canada, enormous amounts of money have been spent in an attempt to combat the war on drugs. During the past twenty years, there have been numerous efforts to address the key issues related to drug and alcohol misuse, involving multiple disciplines. However, it has only been in recent years that harm reduction approaches and policies have been piloted and debated.

What is Harm Reduction? Harm reduction policies and programs are those that work toward reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use. They use a public health approach to dealing with drugs and drug-related issues. Harm reduction policies arose from the need to reduce the spread of AIDS/HIV through injection drug use.

“Harm reduction
policies arose from
the need to reduce
the spread of
AIDS/HIV through
injection drug use.”

A harm reduction policy or program can take several forms, most of which can be found in some form or another operating in Canada. Examples of harm reduction programs include: syringe and needle exchanges, education and outreach programs for those at risk of contracting infectious diseases, methadone programs, law enforcement policies, tolerance areas or safe injection sites supervised by medical personnel, and alcohol and tobacco policies/programs.

Harm reduction has never been concretely defined; however, it has a number of characteristics that set it apart from other drug policies. Amongst harm reduction’s identifiable features is its pragmatism. The pragmatism behind harm reduction is that it accepts that drugs are part of our society and, although they carry risks, they provide the user with benefits, such a means of coping and escaping from current life circumstances. Understanding these benefits is important if drug-using behaviour is to be understood. From a community perspective, pragmatism means that efforts are made to contain drug-related harms rather than trying to eliminate the drug use entirely. Respecting the dignity and rights of the user through humanistic values is another feature of harm reduction. Harm reduction accepts, as a fact, the drug user’s decision to use drugs.


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