The term “harm reduction” is often heard in relation to addiction and/or substance use disorder. However, many people don’t truly understand the term, what it means, and how it fits into the world of addiction treatment.


Harm reduction is a term that refers to policies, procedures, and practices that focus on minimizing negative health, social, and legal impacts associated with addiction, drug use, drug policies, drug laws, and the additional issues that are often associated with drugs.


The aim of harm reduction is on creating positive change in the lives of individuals impacted by addiction and drug use, and to do so without judgement, coercion, discrimination, or without taking a black or white approach to drug use and misuse, such as abstinence. Just as the term says, harm reduction and its associated approaches and beliefs are meant to reduce harm caused by addiction and drug use.


According to The National Harm Reduction Coalition, a nationwide organization that advocates for people who use drugs, there are eight (8) foundational principles central to harm reduction.


The 8 Principles of Harm Reduction

  • Harm reduction accepts, for better or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn.
  • Harm reduction understands drug use as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviors from severe use to total abstinence and acknowledges that some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others.
  • Harm reduction establishes quality of individual and community life and well-being- not necessarily cessation of all drug use- as the criteria for successful interventions and policies.
  • Harm reduction calls for the non-judgmental, non-coercive provision of services and resources to people who use drugs and the communities in which they live in order to assist them in reducing attendant harm.
  • Harm reduction ensures that people who use drugs and those with a history of drug use routinely have a real voice in the creation of programs and policies designed to serve them.
  • Harm reduction affirms people who use drugs themselves as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use and seeks to empower PWUD to share information and support each other in strategies which meet their actual conditions of use.
  • Harm reduction recognizes that the realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination, and other social inequities affect both people’s vulnerability to and capacity for effectively dealing with drug-related harm.
  • Harm reduction does not attempt to minimize or ignore the real and tragic harm and danger that can associated with illicit drug use.


Harm reduction is a strategy that is often used in terms of keeping people alive rather than helping them recover from addiction. However, that is not necessarily the case. Harm reduction, just like addiction treatment, in its most basic form, looks to help individuals with addiction and substance use disorder overcome struggles to find a higher quality of life.


There is an unfortunate battle that continually takes place between individuals within addiction treatment and individuals working in harm reduction. It seemingly comes from an older school train of thought that addiction treatment is an “abstinence-based” approach that does not align with a harm reduction model. Although there are addiction treatment centers and rehabs that still subscribe to an abstinence-based approach, through innovation and scientific research and discovery and data-informed care, many treatment centers now understand that quality of life, health, and wellness of a patient are more important than if they ever use drugs again or not. Therefore, addiction treatment and harm reduction strategies often can overlap, and harm reduction approaches, when related to the clinical work that takes place within addiction treatment, can certainly be integrated into a treatment center’s clinical approach when delivering patient-centered care.


Both harm reduction and addiction treatment want to treat individuals suffering from addiction and substance use disorders with respect and dignity. Both harm reduction and addiction treatment want to implement a patient-centered, individualized approach to care and support. While certain aspects of harm reduction, such a community-based initiatives like needle exchanges, may never truly integrate into an addiction treatment approach, there is more than enough crossover between the two camps where numerous strategies can be employed that can reduce the harm of drug use and addiction, and help individuals find a high quality of life through meaning, direction, and purpose.


If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or co-occurring disorder issues, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (410) 773-0500 or email our team at For more information on all of our drug addiction, alcohol addiction and co-occurring disorder services and recovery resources, please visit our web site at