What Is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction refers to a range of services and policies that lessen the adverse consequences of drug use and protect public health. Unlike approaches that insist that people stop using drugs, harm reduction acknowledges that many people are not able or willing to abstain from illicit drug use, and that abstinence should not be a precondition for help.

What are some examples of harm reduction?

  • Needle and syringe programs help reduce HIV and hepatitis C infections by providing people who inject drugs with sterile injection equipment. Needle and syringe programs do not increase drug use, and act as a bridge to other services such as HIV testing and drug dependency treatment.
  • Methadone and buprenorphine are medicines that reduce the craving for heroin and other drugs, while helping improve the user’s stability, social function, and adherence to HIV medications and other treatment.
  • Peer support and community mobilization empower current and former drug users to play a role in the design of and advocacy for harm reduction programs, increasing the effectiveness of those programs.
  • Rights protections and policy reform may be as critical to health as a clean needle or condom. Services such as legal aid increase drug users’ access to justice and decrease police harassment. Drug policy reform diminishes unnecessary incarceration, prevents rights abuses and reduces law enforcement interference with lifesaving services.

Doesn’t giving people clean needles “send the wrong message” and encourage drug use?

No. The latest research—including multiple studies funded by the U.S. government and by the World Health Organization—overwhelmingly shows that needle and syringe programs reduce HIV risk without increasing drug injection.

How do the Open Society Foundations support harm reduction?

Through grantmaking and advocacy, we support efforts to advance harm reduction in Eastern Europe, Asia, East Africa, and the Americas, including the following:

  • In Ukraine, pressing for more effective regulations governing methadone treatment, and ensuring that patients in pretrial detention have access to this lifesaving medicine;
  • In Vietnam, supporting the formation of a network of people who use drugs to improve services and policies;
  • In Tanzania, supporting a resource and training center on needle and syringe programming;
  • In Kyrgyzstan, offering advocacy to improve services for pregnant women who use drugs, and a drop-in center that offers respite and assistance for women recently out of prison;
  • In Australia, supporting the Law Enforcement Against HIV Network, which has rallied over 5,000 police in over 30 countries around the world to sign a petition in support of harm reduction services to fight HIV;
  • In Russia, creating a website that offers “virtual legal aid” to people charged with drug offenses and their attorneys;
  • Around the world, advocating for and distributing the overdose antidote naloxone, including via naloxoneinfo.org—a website by a coalition of international health organizations promoting the use of naloxone by non-medical professionals.