Harm Reduction International defines harm reduction as the “policies, programmes and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable or unwilling to stop. The defining features are the focus on the prevention of harm, rather than on the prevention of drug use itself, and the focus on people who continue to use drugs.”
Harm reduction, as a key harm minimisation strategy developed in response to the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs (AOD), relies on one basic concept. Respect.
This respect must flow down from those at the top, formulating policies and writing the legislation, to those at the coalface, engaging in risk-taking behaviour – drinking and taking drugs.
The need for respect is simple, without respect, there is no chance of addressing the central issues that lead to illicit drug use; and the excessive focus by law agencies on reducing supply and demand has been shown to be broadly ineffective. If lawmakers and law officials could begin to treat individuals with respect, they would begin to see a degree of reciprocity, as drug users – both casual and those suffering addiction – would no longer feel the need to hide their use. Driving illicit drug use underground has a direct effect on the number of deaths and injuries from overdose, misadventure, and other associated risks.
Harm reduction approaches to drug use can be far more effective because they consider the user perspective. Whether it’s pot, ecstasy, heroin, acid, ice, cocaine, or alcohol, let alone the assortment of other drugs available at the fingertips of most people (with over 40% of Australians having used illicit drugs in their lifetime), drugs users are generally aware of the potential harms related to drug use. The government messaging on this subject runs deep; through education, health, media, and public advertising, there is no way to avoid the “dangers of drug use”; yet, illegal drug use continues unabated.
The reason for this: most drug users lack respect for the authoritarian approach of lawmakers and law enforcers who refuse to offer them any respect.
Harm minimisation is the current drug-related policy in Australia governing all drug-related laws and responses. Harm minimisation considers the health, social and economic consequences of [alcohol and other drug] use in relation to the individual and the community. It has been a key policy of Australian state and federal governments since the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse was launched in 1985.
Harm minimisation policies can be categorised into three areas: harm reduction, supply reduction, and demand reduction.
Australian Department of Health – Working with young people on AOD issues
Harm reduction can take many forms, most people know it as the laws around the responsible service of alcohol, but it is found in needle exchanges, methadone treatment programmes, safe injecting rooms, and pill testing services. There is overwhelming evidence that harm reduction does not increase drug use, in fact harm reduction programs can lead to a decrease in drug use.
Harm reduction complements other harm minimisation strategies, as it recognises that drug use will continue, despite the best efforts of those committed to preventing drug use and drug availability. When governments, political parties, law enforcement – both state and federal, and communities oppose harm reduction policies, they rely on fallacious reasoning, claiming that harm reduction encourages drug use and is a slippery slope to some hypothetical dystopia, where drug addicted criminals roam the streets, murdering and molesting the innocent with reckless abandon.
It’s like A Clockwork Orange, only with far less whimsy.
It is unrealistic in the extreme to assume that a zero-tolerance approach can end the war on drugs by eliminating availability and demand for illicit substances as it throws logic out the window, assuming that the threat of penalties will end all illegal activity.
When governments and the police categorically rule out harm reduction schemes like pill testing at festivals, they are inadvertently committing to a form of harm promotion. Even as they claim that harm reduction will enable drug use, keep people trapped in cycles of addiction, and lead to the legalisation of drugs, these officials provide no evidence beyond the looming threat of all illegal drugs being evil.
It is this conflation of logical fallacies – generalisations; circular arguments; slippery slopes; appeals to ignorance; and false dichotomies – that keeps Australia trapped in the same cycle of use, abuse, and death from drugs; as those in power refuse to offer any respect, to drug users or to the general public, because it is so much simpler to hold fast to the status quo.
By sticking their heads in the sand, they ignore the evidence in favour of harm reduction strategies, and, by holding to prohibition as an absolute solution, cause the deaths of many.
Banning pill testing at events like Spilt Milk, or even Defqon.1, means the politicians and authorities responsible for these decisions have blood on their hands.
Statistics show that most drug users don’t require treatment, and will never suffer from an overdose or poisoning from toxic filling and binding agents, despite the advertised potential for harm. Statistics also show that the damage caused to individuals and the community by alcohol is higher than other drugs. For instance, a key material difference between stoners and alcoholics is that more alcoholics will face hospitalisation as a result of their choices, while a higher percentage of stoners will face arrest for theirs, because one substance (marijuana) has been made illegal, despite causing less harm.
However, for alcoholics, governments at all levels have committed to developing harm minimisation and reduction strategies: through pricing and taxation structures based on assessed threats; liquor licensing laws and the responsible service of alcohol requirements; community alcohol-free zones; and the intent behind the Sydney lockout-laws and NSW alcohol sales curfew. Because they recognised the potential for harm, and sought to address it without banning the sale of alcohol altogether.
A similar approach will be required for other drugs.
In the future, there will need to be a more reasoned, and empathetic, discussion around drug use and effective harm minimisation – one that looks at the fact that methadone can be more harmful and addictive than heroin, or the availability of horrendously damaging drugs like alcohol and tobacco, or even the emerging evidence supporting the legalisation of marijuana. But for now, we need to be brave enough to look at the available evidence, and to take the required steps towards responsible harm minimisation policies, such as allowing pill testing at festivals.
Cover image via Oztix