Harm reduction

What is harm reduction?

Harm reduction refers to policies and practices that try to reduce the harm that people do to themselves or others from their drug use. It can be contrasted with primary prevention which tries to prevent people using drugs in the first place, or to stop them using once they’ve started.

Harm reduction first became a widely used term in the UK in the 1980s in response to the increasing number of cases of HIV among drug injectors and the development of syringe exchange schemes. Since then it has been developed in a number of ways including ‘safer dancing’ and drug testing.

Harm reduction focuses on ‘safer’ drug use and has also been developed as a way of educating young people about drug use, rather than telling them to ‘Just Say No’.

There have been arguments over the morality of harm reduction. Some people say that it condones or promotes drug use, but people who support it say it is realistic, helps keep drug users safe and respects individual choices and freedoms. See the Position Statement from Harm Reduction International for more on this.

Harm reduction initiatives

There are a wide range of different harm reduction initiatives in place. These include:

  • Needle exchange schemes – providing clean and sterile needles for people who inject drugs, thereby reducing the transmission of blood borne diseases such as hepatitis and HIV and enabling the safe disposal of syringes.
  • Drug Consumption Rooms –  places where illicit drugs can be taken under the supervision of trained staff, thereby reducing the chances of overdose, disease transmission and drug related litter.
  • Drug testing in Clubs – The Loop conducts forensic testing of drugs at UK festivals and nightclubs and provides associated welfare support.
  • Providing information on safer drug use – see the guidelines below

Harm reduction guidelines

  • If you are going to use drugs, do not use them alone and always tell someone else what it is you have taken.
  • Always use clean needles and do not share injecting equipment.
  • Begin by using a small amount e.g. a quarter of a pill and wait a couple of hours before taking more. Or Crush, Dab, Wait – i.e. crush up any pills, dab in a wet finger to taste and then wait an hour or two. This is particular important advice now that ecstasy tablets are being found that are much stronger than they used to be. See more on this here.
  • Don’t mix drugs with other drugs including alcohol or prescription medications.
  • When dancing, be sure to take breaks to cool down and drink small sips of water – but don’t drink more than a pint an hour.
  • Think about your surroundings and do not use in an unsafe place.
  • Never drive or use machinery after taking drugs.
  • Always get help if you are worried about a friend and give the medical professionals as much information as possible about the drug or drugs that were taken.
  • Place sleeping or unconscious friends in the recovery position


  • Practice safe sex

Further reading

The Global State of Harm Reduction provides an annually updated analysis of harm reduction responses to drug use, HIV and viral hepatitis from around the world.

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