What is your perspective on the theory of harm reduction as a philosophy?
Harm reduction works from the perspective that you should meet people where they are rather than tell people what to do or not do. The reality is people will use drugs. If you solely tell people not to use drugs and they choose to anyway, you’re not the one they’ll come to with questions or if they need support. We need to provide people with the best education tools, strategies, and services with the aim of reducing preventable harms and risks from drug use.
Is the harm reduction approach the best way to minimize harm on youth?
It’s important to note that prevention is a harm reduction strategy, but it falls short when it’s the only strategy. We have to recognize youth use drugs too, regardless of how good your work around prevention is.
Anyone who has gone through high school knows young people are using drugs, whether that be alcohol, cannabis, or other drugs. An educational system or approach that only preaches to not drink or use drugs is not sufficient — of course, that may be a sufficient deterrent for some youth, and that’s good, but others will still choose to try.
I think that the later into adolescence and early adulthood that we can delay the initiation of drug use, the better the health consequences. We know youth who are younger when they start drinking, smoking, or using other drugs are more likely to struggle with substance dependence and have other negative health outcomes.
I think prevention is part of a good harm reduction strategy – for youth and adults alike. The important thing is that work around prevention cannot be based on fear. It needs to be evidence-based by drawing on the available research and presenting it in a way that permits people to make their own decisions.
When we use fear-based approaches, which often rely on exaggeration, people find out sooner or later that the information they were given was false or blown out of proportion. This erodes people’s trust. If this information comes from a teacher or a close adult, this leads youth to lose trust in someone who could have otherwise been a source of guidance and support on this topic.
What are some general effects we’ve seen in Canada in practicing Harm Reduction?
Broadly speaking, harm reductions strategies allow people to make safer and healthier choices for themselves.
Take cannabis, for example. if people are going to use cannabis, having appropriate information about dosage and what to expect can be the difference between having a negative and overwhelming experience or having a pleasant experience. Similarly, having clear and non-judgmental information about any long-term health consequences, or about substance dependence, can make a world of difference in preventing harm.
By and large, especially if this type of education is provided by the people youth trust, whether peer-based education or the education coming from adults, teachers, and parents, there’s more forethought, information, and consideration behind the decision to use drugs.