Harm Reduction and the Federal Government’s New Anti-Drug Strategy

Harm Reduction and the Federal Government’s New Anti-Drug Strategy

In October 2007, the Federal Government unveiled a National Anti-Drug Strategy that mandates new funding for law enforcement, prevention education, and rehabilitation but eliminates funding for harm reduction programs — including safer drug use outreach, needle exchanges, safe injection facilities, and methadone clinics. The $64 million strategy prioritizes the enforcement of drug laws and stiffer penalties for those who break them.

As we have seen from the example of the United States, anti-drug strategies that focus exclusively on law enforcement and abstinence (‘Just Say No’) messaging can have a negative impact on individuals, families and whole communities. This approach ignores the social, economic, and emotional complexities of drug use, effectively punishing the user by giving them the option to rehabilitate or face legal sanctions. The choice, for some people, is not so simple.

The reality is that some people cannot or will not stop using drugs. Harm reduction pragmatically and realistically acknowledges this fact by providing evidence-based programs and services to lessen the harms associated with drug use1.

The Federal Government’s strategy, on the other hand, discourages open dialogue about drug use, effectively stigmatizing it. As a result, both recreational and habitual users will be less likely to access the information and services they need to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and stay healthy, or to seek out rehabilitation programs on their own terms. And because the new Anti-Drug Strategy will limit access to services such as needle exchanges and safe injection facilities, we can expect to see increased HIV infection rates and a higher incidence of drug overdoses in the future.

Stiffer penalties and increased enforcement have also been shown to impact low-income and marginalized communities disproportionately. Higher incarceration rates increase poverty levels, which in turn make communities more vulnerable to HIV infection. It’s a vicious cycle.

As the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network points out, harm reduction is essential to a human rights-centered approach to HIV/AIDS. People who use drugs “have a right to health services that are accessible, affordable, culturally appropriate, available in a non-discriminatory way, and attentive to the needs of those who are marginalized by society.” As such, harm reduction is a “concrete manifestation of the right of people who use drugs to comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and care services2.”

Research3 indicates that drug policies which include harm reduction as a core principle more effectively mitigate the impact of drug use on individuals, families and communities. By recognizing and accepting that some people will engage in risky behaviour, health workers, social service providers, and police are better able to take a proactive approach to the problem, minimizing harm and maximizing the opportunities for rehabilitation.

The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) urges Minister of Health Tony Clement to reconsider this ‘War on Drugs’-style approach in favour of a robust drug strategy that combines law enforcement, prevention education, treatment, and harm reduction to address drug use and its attendant complexities in Canada.

1. Effectiveness of Sterile Needle and Syringe Programming in Reducing HIV/AIDS Among Injection Drug Users. World Health Organization. 2004.
2. Do Not Cross: Policing and HIV Risk Face by People Who Use Drugs. Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. 2007.
3. Drug control, human rights, and harm reduction in the age of AIDS. Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. 2004.