WASHINGTON (July 18, 2022) –– In a new paper, R Street Institute Resident Senior Fellow for Integrated Harm Reduction, Stacey McKenna, examines the way current public policy may create barriers to providing optimal harm reduction services in communities.

Harm reduction is a pragmatic public health approach that recognizes that abstinence-only approaches often don’t work. Instead, its goal is to reduce the risks associated with certain behaviors, including drug use.

In 2020, 91,799 individuals died from drug overdoses—a 31 percent increase from 2019. As this crisis persists, a growing number of state and local lawmakers are embracing harm reduction as a proven way to minimize the risks associated with illicit drug use. However, government overreach is hindering organizations’ ability to provide services and resources tailored to community needs and priorities. In some cases, organizations face tight or inconsistent regulations on the municipal level while others struggle with state policies that prevent them from working in the best way possible for a community.

“Harm reduction policy often imposes regulations via direct legislation or through funding restrictions as states seek to manage what supplies are distributed, what services are provided and how these resources are disbursed,” said McKenna. “But evidence suggests that when given the freedom to do so, harm reduction providers actively work to strike a balance between providing services based on current science and prioritizing the voices of the participants and communities they serve. This makes them considerably more qualified to develop and implement programs than lawmakers sitting in offices, far removed from the issues.”

Lawmakers should support bills that give autonomy to communities and harm reduction organizations. This will allow harm reduction policy to fall in line with general health care policy, which has historically adopted an approach that limits state involvement, supports provider expertise and promotes bodily autonomy and patient choice.

This crisis cannot be overstated. Since 1999, nearly 1 million individuals in the United States have died from a drug overdose. The importance of getting harm reduction policy right—right now—could save untold numbers of lives.

Read the full policy study here.