What is Harm Reduction?

The main characteristics or principles of harm reduction are:

  • Pragmatism: Harm Reduction accepts that some use of mind-altering substances is inevitable and that some level of drug use is normal in a society.
  • Humanistic Values: The drug user’s decision to use drugs is accepted as fact, as his or her choice, no “moralistic” judgment is made either to condemn or to support use of drugs, regardless of the level of use or mode of intake. The dignity and rights of the drug user are respected.
  • Focus on Harms: The extent of a person’s drug use is of secondary importance to the harms resulting from use
  • Balancing Costs and Benefits: Some pragmatic process of identifying, measuring and assessing the relative importance of drug-related problems, their associated harms, and cost/benefits of intervention is carried out in order to focus resources on priority issues. The framework of analysis extends beyond the immediate interests of users to include broader community and societal interests.
  • Hierarchy of Goals: Most harm reduction programs have a hierarchy of goals, with immediate focus on addressing the most pressing needs


At present there is no agreement in the addictions literature or among practitioners as to the definition of harm reduction. Harm reduction can be viewed as both a goal and a strategy. A more narrow definition of harm reduction as a strategy rather than as a goal removes some of the confusion. As a specific strategy, the term harm reduction generally refers to only those policies and programs which aim at reducing drug-related harm without requiring abstention from drug use. Thus defined, harm reduction strategies would not include strategies such as abstinence-oriented treament programs or the criminalization of illicit harm, not all policies and programs with a goal of harm reduction are harm reduction strategies. A harm reduction approach to a person’s drug use in the short term does not rule out abstinence in the longer term. Indeed, harm reduction approaches are often the first step towards the eventual cessation of drug use.

For more information related to Harm Reduction

Visit: The Canadian Harm Reduction website
Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (Vandu)