Harm reduction is an umbrella term for policies and practices that are focused on reducing problematic effects of alcohol and other drug use. It can take place on the individual, community, or societal level. Harm reduction is focused on minimizing consequences without needing the activity to stop. It is a well-researched, evidence-based approach shown to be effective in addressing substance related harms (minimizing death, disease, and injury). Harm reduction is the only global drug policy response that has proven to save lives and money at the same time as increasing quality of life (Stone & Sander, 2016).
Society actively embraces harm reduction in other areas where there is high risk for death and injury. For example, Seat belts, air bags, helmets for bicyclists and motorcyclists are all examples of measures taken to reduce the severity of injuries in the event of collision or upset. These measures neither prevent crashes nor attempt to reduce the high-risk behaviours that lead to negative events. Once again, the primary goal is simply to reduce the likelihood and severity of injury. Not only have such measures proven effective and garnered widespread support, in many jurisdictions they have become legal requirements (National Treatment Strategy Working Group, 2008).
In this context, harm reduction refers to an umbrella term for policies and practices focused on reducing problematic effects of alcohol and other drug use (Erickson, Butters, & Walko, 2002). Harm reduction can take place on the individual, community, or societal level. Examples of familiar substance use harm reduction strategies include: Smart Serve for bartenders, which decreases the potential for public drunkenness and DUIs; needle exchange programs that reduce HIV transmission; no-smoking zones to limit second-hand exposure to smoke (Erickson, Butters, & Walko, 2002). It is a non-judgmental approach that opens up honest dialogue around drug (including alcohol) use and decreases stigma around those whose substance use has become problematic.
Another way of looking at harm reduction is as secondary prevention. Primary prevention focuses on preventing the high risk behaviour or disease in the first place, secondary prevention focuses “on early detection and preventing progression and threats to the health of the individual” (National Treatment Strategy Working Group, 2008). In the case of post-secondary students, reducing the harms they may experience from the use of alcohol and other drugs, and identifying problematic use before it progresses into an addiction would be examples of secondary prevention.
When the greater Canadian social context is examined, it is easy to see that the use of alcohol and other substances, like marijuana, is increasingly normalized as part of social interactions. Alcohol in particular is used to celebrate, commiserate, and socialize (National College Health Improvement Project, 2013). Alcohol has even begun to be present in traditionally non-alcohol related activities, such as paint classes and yoga. To expect post-secondary students to abstain from an activity that is ingrained in the culture and used by the general population is unrealistic. In addition, post-secondary education comes with its unique challenges:
Harm reduction decreases the health risks of any activity without requiring you to stop the activity itself. Some common examples include bike helmets, seat belts, oven mitts, and “Don’t drink and drive” messages. Here is what you need to know about harm reduction and substance use: