top of page

What is Harm Reduction?

In its simplest definition, harm reduction means reducing the possible harm from activities that humans do every day. As an example, wearing a seatbelt in a car or a helmet when bicycling could be considered harm reduction. Seatbelts and helmets won't protect us 100% of the time, but they do reduce the risk for injuries or death.

Does harm reduction also mean treatment?

Treatment is another harm reduction tool that is useful for some people -- but not everybody who uses drugs wants to quit and not everyone who wants to quit is ready to do so. For participants who are exploring reducing or stopping use, we can help provide substance use treatment info and referrals when requested. In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to reduce harms that may come from using. This might be accessing syringes, overdose reversal education and more. Everyone deserves an opportunity to be healthy.

What does harm reduction have to do with injection drug use?

Sometimes people use drugs, and like many activities that humans choose to do, people who use drugs may face health consequences as a result. Most people understand that injection drug use increases the incidence of HIV, HCV, infections and overdose, but harm reduction isn’t about just injecting drugs. 

People who smoke their drugs also face high rates of overdose, a close second to injection. Hepatitis C, oral injuries and infection are also potential harms. Even snorting drugs comes with potential harms such as HCV and nasal and throat infections. 

Examples of Harm Reduction in Other Areas



Speed Limits

Birth Control

Here's an short video with an easy to understand definition of harm reduction 

Facts About Harm Reduction

Harm reduction offered people who use drugs tools and information so they can better create of themselves and their health. Some people think that harm reduction "enables" increased drug use, but there is no evidence that harm reduction increases rates of use. In fact, evidence shows that harm reduction services, like syringe services programs, are economical, effective, and safe. Plus, they are proven to reduce rates of HIV, Hepatitis C and other health concerns. "

Harm reduction recognizes that drug use is different for every person, just as every experience is personal and different. Unfortunately, the way drug use is seen and portrayed in our culture has only shown drug use in the most extreme, problematic and dramatic ways. Personal autonomy and dignity are central to harm reduction approaches because every person has the right to make choices for themselves and their health. 

Harm reduction acknowledges that drug use happens on a spectrum and no one person's use is the same. Some people don't use drugs at all. Some people use a large amount daily, and may even experience a dependence on them. Then there are people in the middle somewhere, who will move back and forth between the two extremes. 

People who use drugs care about their health as much as those who do not use drugs. Taking care of your health can mean a lot of things, like going to the doctor, brushing and flossing your teeth or accessing a syringe services program. Unfortunately, the stigmatizing images and words used to describe drugs doing things to care for their health. The fact is, people who use drugs may face many obstacles when it comes to maintaining their health and finding healthcare. Some of these include cost, housing, insurance navigation, finding a healthcare facility and provider, receiving poor or no care and more.  

Negative stereotypes and myths create barriers to employment, information, healthcare and resources for people who use drugs. Lots of people do drugs, including drinking alcohol. People from every walk of life do them, and challenging these stereotypes and myths and fighting stigma is a key principle of harm reduction. 

Harm reduction views treatment and recovery as tools that may be right for some, but not for all. Both are defined by the individual, not a guide or a textbook. That may mean abstinence from all substances, quitting one and still use another, reduced use, using maintenance meds or medically assisted treatment, or finding another option. It's a personal choice, and there is no right way to "do treatment" or defined path to recovery. The Points West team is available to provide more information about options in the area. 


Harm reduction sees MAT (Medically Assisted Treatment) as an evidence-based tool that can be helpful for some  individuals. Maintenance meds are not a substitute, but rather a helpful tool that reduces the difficult symptoms that can come with withdrawal. They work differently than traditional opioids such as heroin or fentanyl. They have gradual onsets, diminish cravings, and block the euphoric effects of other opioids, all without getting someone high. Taking medication for addiction and being in recovery are not mutually exclusive. Treatment options and choices are very personal and there are a variety of things to consider such as finding a good MAT provider or the correct medication. A Points West team member can share some helpful information and resources. 

Harm reduction accepts that drug use can be complicated and challenging for some people. There is no doubt that some people struggle with their use, but there is a myth in our culture that people could quit drugs if they really wanted to. If it were that easy, we wouldn't need harm reduction, syringe services, HIV/HCV testing, treatment centers or maintenance medications. It's important to understand that people use drugs for many reasons, including but not limited to, getting high to have a good time, pain relief, self-medicating needs or staying awake for a job or personal safety. 

Evidence has shown that the brain interacts differently with different substances, and that certain substances can cause changes in the brain that drive the cravings and need for that substance. These can include nicotine, alcohol and opioids. It can be difficult or near impossible to quit, especially if access to treatment or support are hindered by lack of money, insurance, childcare or general life circumstances. 

bottom of page