Often, when we think of treatment for drug addiction, we think of an abstinence-based approach, in which a person is encouraged to stop using any and all addictive substances and enter a rehab program so they can learn to live a sober life. While stopping the use of addictive drugs is certainly beneficial, there is another option to an entirely abstinence-based style of treatment: harm-reduction.

Rather than viewing abstinence as the only method for managing addiction, harm reduction approaches include a broad spectrum of activities that can help people manage their drug use, use drugs more safely, and achieve abstinence when they are prepared. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve lasting abstinence, but along the way, harm reduction approaches may be necessary. Learn about some of these approaches below.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

While it may be surprising, medication-assisted treatment (or MAT) is actually among the harm-reduction approaches. A person who is receiving MAT services will remain abstinent from illegal drugs, but they do continue to take medications prescribed by a doctor to help them manage cravings and stay sober from addictive substances like heroin. In the case of an opioid addiction, for example, someone participating in MAT would take a replacement medication to help them stop using illegal or non-prescribed opioid drugs. MAT for opioid addiction typically involves taking an FDA-approved medication like buprenorphine, naltrexone, or methadone. A person who is involved in MAT does not remain abstinent from all substances, but this approach is still beneficial, as it has been shown to be effective for reducing illegal drug use and the consequences that come with it.

Distribution of Naloxone

Naloxone distribution is another harm reduction method that may be utilized to reduce the risks associated with drug use. This medication has the ability to reverse an opioid overdose and save lives in the event of an overdose. In the past, only healthcare professionals and emergency responders have been able to give naloxone to someone who is overdosing, but it is becoming more common for health departments and community centers to offer trainings on naloxone use and to distribute this drug, so that friends and family members can intervene if a loved one overdoses.

Overdose Prevention Sites and Drug Checking Services

Overdose prevention sites and drug checking services are harm reduction approaches that have originated outside of the United States. For instance, as of earlier in 2021, there were no approved overdose prevention sites in the country. An overdose prevention site is seen as a safer location for drug use, as these sites are staffed by medical professionals who can provide emergency treatment in the case of an overdose. These sites can also provide services like counseling, or refer users to these services. Canada has offered overdose prevention sites, where individuals come when using drugs, and to date, there have been no reported deaths at any of them.

Finally, drug testing sites, which have emerged in Europe, will test for dangerous substances, such as Fentanyl, within drug samples. Someone might purchase drugs and then use the services of a drug checking site to ensure there are no unknown substances within the drugs before using them. These sites can also provide education about the dangers of drugs or substances included within a sample.

Needle Exchange Programs

Needle exchange programs allow drug users to receive clean needles for injection, and they dispose of used needles. Someone seeking services at a needle exchange site can also be referred to other resources, such as addiction treatment programs, medical services, and mental health counseling. Programs offering needle exchange may also provide HIV screenings and education about addiction. Research shows that when people use needle exchange programs, they are more likely to enter treatment and stop injecting drugs. These programs also reduce the risk of HIV and other infections.

The Bottom Line on Harm Reduction

Abstinence is always the safest choice when it comes to drug addiction, but harm reduction approaches can reduce the risks associated with drug abuse and serve as a stepping stone until someone is ready to enter treatment and achieve sobriety. In some cases, harm reduction approaches like MAT may be used as a part of ongoing treatment.

If you or a loved one is living with addiction, iRecoveryUSA is here to help. We offer comprehensive addiction services, including MAT, in an entirely remote format via our telehealth platform. Contact us today to begin healing from addiction.

Published 9/6/2021.