Harm Reduction

Harm Reduction is an evidence-based, person-centred approach that seeks to reduce the health and social harms associated with addiction and substance use, without necessarily requiring people who use substances to abstain or stop their use. Its cornerstones are public health, human rights and social justice. It recognizes that drug use is complex and multifaceted. It’s about ‘meeting people where they are at’ in a non-judgemental way and treating people with dignity and respect. 

Harm Reduction does:

  • Reduce transmission of HIV, Hep B, Hep C
  • Reduce the number of used needles discarded in community
  • Provide contact with health and social service providers
  • Promote treating people with dignity and respect
  • Reduce stigma for people who use drugs
  • Provide education to People Who Use Drugs (PWUD) how to use drugs more safely

Harm Reduction does not:

  • Increase the duration or frequency of substance use
  • Decrease motivation to reduce drug use
  • Encourage initiation of injection drug use
Photo showing many harm reduction supplies displayed on a white table.
Photo showing many harm reduction supplies displayed on a white table.

A common misconception of harm reduction is that it encourages drug use. Harm Reduction is a person-centered approach that supports the goals of the person who uses substances, whatever that goal is. It can include anything from abstinence to creating a safer supply of substances to safer injection practices to overdose prevention. Harm Reduction takes a person-centered approach and ‘meets people where they are at’ and recognizes that people are the experts of their own lives. Harm Reduction values all people and the human experience. Harm reduction does not place judgment on people’s actions; it endeavors to keep all community members safe, those who use substances and those who do not.

Harm reduction doesn’t just apply to the use of substances. We engage in harm reduction in our everyday lives to minimize a risk, such as wearing a bike helmet or using a seatbelts in our car.

In order to further understand the philosophy behind Harm Reduction, it is important to discuss the main features, which include:

• Pragmatism: Harm Reduction recognizes that substance use is inevitable in a society and that it is necessary to take a public health-oriented response to minimize potential harms.
• Humane Values: Individual choice is considered, and judgement is not placed on people who use substances. The dignity of people who use substances is respected.
• Focus on Harms: An individual’s substance use is secondary to the potential harms that may result in that use. 1

The overarching goal of the harm reduction approach is to prevent the negative consequences of substance use and to improve health. Harm reduction approaches and programming are supported internationally by global institutions such as UNAIDS, United Nations office on Drugs and Crime, and the World Health Organization, and it is seen as a best practice for engaging with individuals with addiction and substance use issues. 2


To reduce and eliminate health, social and economic harms of problematic substance use among individuals, families, and the community of Oxford County by increasing harm reduction initiatives.

Photo showing a person (hands only) dropping a needle into a yellow sharps container. The container has labels on it: "NEEDLE DROP BOX" and "No Garbage".
Safe sharps dispoal kiosk.


1. Bierness, D. (2008) Harm Reduction: What’s in a name? Canadian Center on Substance Abuse National Policy Working Group. Retrieved from: http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/ccsa0115302008e.pdf

2. Marlatt, A. (2011). Integrating Harm Reduction Therapy and Traditional Addiction And Traditional Substance Use Treatment. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 331:1