February 15, 2016
By Imaz Athar
Paint a picture of a drug addict. Now, step back, and look at what you’ve created. Someone in a dark street corner or maybe alone in a messy, empty room. No job, no money, detached from their surroundings, a lifeless body, shooting up. This picture we’ve created is a masterpiece. Not because of it’s beauty, elegance, or accuracy, but instead due to its ultimate depiction of self-destruction, failure, and death.
In some ways, our depiction of drug addiction is rooted in harsh realities. Drugs devastate both physical and mental health. They consume individual lives and communities and just as easily destroy them. This is all very well-documented—according to the NIH, the number of deaths due to overdose have increased dramatically over the past ten years. More specifically, deaths due to heroin overdose have increased six-fold since 2001.
The effects of drug addiction are real and fatal but, it’s possible that our perception of drug addicts has only made the situation worse. We often think that drug addicts willingly separate themselves from larger, ‘functioning’ society. However, maybe we are the ones who’ve pushed them farther and farther into society’s corners and edges. I mean, think about the anti-drug programs, like D.A.R.E., that many of us go through when we’re in grade school. From what I remember, D.A.R.E scared us straight—the main message they tried to hammer in our heads was that ‘drugs are bad.’ And, it’s true, drugs are bad for you. But, from a young age, we weren’t taught how life situations result in drug addiction, or even the problems that drug addicts go through. Instead, we learned to paint drug addicts as self-destructive deviants—we’ve stigmatized them. What would motivate a drug addict to reach out for help when a majority of our society views them as failures who’ve succumbed to a major evil? Perhaps if we didn’t stigmatize and isolate drug addicts we could create an open environment where they would feel more comfortable to talk about what they’re going through.
Enter: harm reduction. Harm reduction is defined as a “set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use.” The benefits of needle exchange programs (NEPs) that practice harm reduction are immediate—they provide drug users with screenings for syphilis and hepatitis C, drug kits (including sterile needles, bleach, etc.), naloxone, among other materials, for ‘safe’ drug use. NEPs have yielded positive results as the use of clean drug kits have reduced HIV transmission rates by one-third to two-fifths; meanwhile, use of naloxone has reduced the number of deaths due to overdose. The less immediate, but still significant, benefit of harm reduction practices is that they create a non-judgemental space for drug users, rather than a stigmatizing one. It’s possible that addicts may be more willing to share their experiences with NEPs’ case managers or health professionals, as a result of the trusting environment that NEPs provide—they may even feel more empowered to stop using drugs. In fact, the numbers show that NEP participants are five times more likely to enter drug treatment than those who had never used an NEP.
Although harm reduction has had a generally positive impact on our country’s drug problem, it also raises somewhat of an ethical dilemma. Some argue that, by providing drug users with needles and other equipment, NEPs are promoting drug use, rather than acting against it. I gotta admit, this was also my initial thought. But, now, I would argue that NEPs are acting against drug use, but just not in the way that we’re accustomed to seeing. ‘Promoting’ drug use implies that NEPs are encouraging drug addicts to use more and more, but that just isn’t the case. Instead, NEPs realize that the conventional shaming of drug addicts isn’t an effective approach, and that establishing trust is.
Accepting harm reduction requires a shift in thinking. We’re so used to viewing drug users as addicts, rather than actual human beings that are just going through problems. But, the proof lies in the numbers—harm reduction works. Yet, it’s up to us to re-picture drug addiction. If we look deeper, and without judgment, we may begin to realize what a drug addict is really going through.