Harm Reduction is a comprehensive, just and science-based approach to substance use. It represents policies, strategies and services, which aim to assist people who use legal and illegal psychoactive drugs to live safer and healthier lives. All substances have both positive and negative effects. Substance use may affect one’s health and legal vulnerability, and Harm Reduction recognizes that people use drugs for many reasons. Reduction of substance use and/or abstinence is not required in order to receive respect, compassion or services. It is clear that most people who use substances do not experience problems, but in some circumstances, substance use can become dependent and/or chaotic. Harm Reduction enhances the ability of people who use substances to have increased control over their lives and their health, and allows them to take protective and proactive measures for themselves, their families and their communities.
– Streetworks (Edmonton)
Harm reduction reflects widespread consensus among a range of government officials, health care professions, police and law enforcement agencies, academics and non-governmental organizations. Yet in 2007, the Government of Canada removed harm reduction as an official element of Canada’s federal drug strategy and implemented a more punitive approach to drug policy. Once a relative leader in progressive drug policy, Canada has also opposed harm reduction within international forums as a key component of global and national drug strategies.
While provincial governments continue to develop harm reduction services together with the evolution of municipal drug strategies, federal policy priorities are increasingly obstructing the implementation of local harm reduction responses.
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Priorities for Action
Create a legal and policy environment that facilitates the development and scaling up of harm reduction approaches and services across the country. This includes:
- Reinstating harm reduction as one of the four pillars of Canada’s federal drug strategy, supported by adequate funding
- Repealing laws such as Bill C-2, which impede the implementation of supervised consumption services where they are needed
- Developing policies to enable and guide the implementation of harm reduction services that are largely missing or only available in limited settings, such as the distribution of naloxone (used to prevent overdoses from being fatal) and the testing of street drugs
- Ensuring naloxone can be provided without a prescription, and distributed by medical personnel to people who use drugs, their families and friends, and others who might witness an overdose
- Scale up harm reduction services Canada-wide, including in remote and rural areas, and in prisons―this includes expanding the range of drug treatment options available behind bars and ensuring access to sterile injection equipment
- Internationally, advocate for harm reduction to be recognized as an essential component of global and national drug strategies at the upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April 2016.