3 Myths about Harm Reduction

Harm reduction is a set of guiding principles aimed at reducing the harms associated with substance use.

Using substances should not be a barrier to accessing services that better your health or prevent certain health consequences like sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBI’s). Examples of harm reduction include needle exchange programs, overdose prevention sites, education around safer substance use, and education about safer sex.

Myths about Harm Reduction  

These myths usually come from a moral framing of substance use. A moral framing of substance use looks at people who use substances (often, illegal substances) as doing something “wrong” or “bad”. This can cause people who use substances to feel a lot of shame and rejection from health and social services as well as the community in general.

Let’s look at 3 common myths around harm reduction and debunk them together, using principles of harm reduction.

Myth 1: Harm reduction encourages substance use.


Harm reduction neither encourages nor promotes substance use.

Instead, it acknowledges that people are already using substances. Rather than punishing or isolating them, harm reduction means using substances as safely as possible. While some substances are legal, such as alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, certain substances are criminalized or illegal. This presents even more harm. The potency of substances is sometimes unknown, which can increase the risk of drug toxicity. Fear of arrest or police harassment can cause people to use substances in private places or alone. This means there is less chance of someone being able to respond to an instance of overdose or drug toxicity.

People use substances for a variety of reasons and accessing supports can be difficult. Harm reduction seeks to make sure that people who are using substances are doing so as safely as possible.

Myth 2: Harm reduction is only for people who use substances (PWUS).

Harm reduction is not only for people who use substances.

Wearing a helmet is harm reduction, wearing a seatbelt is harm reduction, ensuring you have a sober drive home from a party is harm reduction. These are strategies used to reduce the related harms of various behaviors or activities. There are other behaviors, like sexual activity and sex work, that we can also apply these principles to. Rather than focusing on reducing sex or promoting abstinence, harm reduction means providing support and education on how people can be as safe as possible. Harm reduction looks different for everyone.

One of the harms we are trying to reduce that is associated with substance use is the transmission of certain STBBI’s like HIV and Hepatitis C. However, these are not just transmitted through sharing drug use equipment. Safer sex education, risk reduction strategies like condom distribution, and HIV self-testing are also harm reduction. Providing a welcoming non-judgmental space for patients to discuss their sexual health and sexuality is also reducing the harm of people feeling shame or stigma. These feelings can lead people to avoid some of these sexual health services.

A person does not have to use substances to benefit from education or harm reduction programs like these.

Myth 3: Harm reduction isn’t supportive of people who want to reduce or stop their substance use.


Harm reduction involves meeting people where they are at.

This means supporting people’s substance use needs, goals and priorities that they have identified themselves.  

Harm reduction is supportive of people who are in recovery, or whose goal is to reduce or abstain from using substances. We do not want to assume we know better about someone else's situation than they do or impose our own values. Therefore, harm reduction does not assume or impose the goal of abstinence but it does support those who have that goal for themselves.

Substance use is complex and influenced by a number of factors. However, all people who use substances, regardless of their goals, deserve the ability to make their own informed choices about what is best for them, all of which is supported under the principles of harm reduction.

Article by Meaghan Coughlan

Education Coordinator at AIDS New Brunswick


Additional Resources: ons-by-topic?tid_1=7304

Stigma and Substance Use

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