What is harm minimisation?
Harm minimisation, also known as harm reduction is a public health approach that recognises that communities can work with people who use drugs to minimise the dangers they face. Harm minimisation is a key component of Australia’s approach to drug use.
According to Harm Reduction International:
Harm reduction refers to policies, programs and practices that aim to minimise negative health, social and legal impacts associated with drug use, drug policies and drug laws. Harm reduction is grounded in justice and human rights. It focuses on positive change and on working with people without judgement, coercion, discrimination, or requiring that they stop using drugs as a precondition of support. Learn more at Harm Reduction Australia.
Harm minimisation practices take many forms. Commonly, harm minimisation programs aim to prevent the spread of illnesses (including blood borne viruses like HIV and Hepatitis C, or more recently COVID-19) and prevent overdose.
In Australia, various harm minimisation programs are run by the government, community groups, and peer workers. Examples include:
- needle and syringe programs that provide sterile injecting equipment
- drug consumption facilities that provide medical assistance in the event of an overdose
- pill testing services and first aid staff at music festivals
- drink driver education
- pharmacotherapy programs aim to improve safety and stability by substituting legally prohibited drugs such as heroin for prescription medications like methadone or long-acting injectable buprenorphine, administered under medical supervision.
First aid staff at Pol'and'Rock Festival. Photo by Łukasz Widziszowski on WikiCommons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Harm minimisation and COVID-19: Tips
We’ve now been living with COVID-19 for several years and it is circulating widely in our community. Remember that people who use drugs commonly experience problems with their immune systems, respiratory (breathing) problems and other health problems that can increase the risk of being infected by COVID-19. Our friends at Turning Point offered the following advice about how to use drugs more safely during the pandemic — and it’s great advice to protect yourself in general.
Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use alcohol-based hand-rub. Do this right before you prep your drugs and after any contact with others (e.g. when getting your drugs, using public transport and handling cash). Make sure you dry your hands well with paper towel or an air-dryer.
Don’t share drugs and equipment
Sharing drugs, vapes, bongs, pipes, spoons and other injecting supplies (e.g. filters and swabs) all increase the risk of spreading virus and bacteria including COVID-19 and blood-borne viruses like Hepatitis C and HIV.
Prep your own drugs
Try not to let other people handle your drugs or drug supplies. When preparing drugs, wash your hands and use alcohol swabs to clean the surface you are using.
If you or someone you know uses heroin or other opioids, you can now access free Naloxone (Narcan) nation-wide. Naloxone is a drug that temporarily reverses an opioid overdose to allow more time for medical intervention. Contact the health department in your state to find out where you can get naloxone and learn how to use it.
Respond to overdoses
If at any time you have to give naloxone to someone, try to use gloves, safely dispose of used naloxone kits directly into the trash after use and clean your hands.
Wipe down drug bags
Avoid carrying drug bags in your body (e.g. mouth) as this may spread COVID-19 and other viruses or bacteria. If you do carry drug bags in your body, clean the bag thoroughly with alcohol-based hand rub or alcohol swabs prior to inserting and after you take it out.
Prepare for unplanned withdrawal
Have a backup plan in case you end up unexpectedly unable to get drugs or alcohol. Be aware that unplanned alcohol or benzodiazepine (e.g. Valium) withdrawals can be very dangerous, and withdrawal from other drugs can be painful or unpleasant. Check out our guides to withdrawal and make a plan with someone you trust who will be able to help you get medical care if you unexpectedly go into withdrawal.
This advice was adapted from resources by INPUD and the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine, Global Health Justice Partnership, Crackdown and 3D Research
Harm minimisation in your state
Harm minimisation services vary from state to state. To find out more about what’s going on near you, get in touch with the service in your state: