Today's Most Promising Remedy for the Drug War

Even Duluth, Minnesota (population 86,265) is catching on. Last month, municipal leaders announced plans to open a syringe and needle exchange facility in Duluth, the first of its kind in this mid-sized Midwestern city. 

The Duluth syringe and needle exchange facility will join the ranks of other harm reduction providers, like other needle exchange facilities, supervised injection sites, non-profits that distribute intranasal sprays to prevent overdose, and more. While harm reduction is not a new concept, it could be the United States’ most promising solution to the drug war as long as federal prohibition is intact. 

To begin, the term harm reduction implies a health-centered approach to reduce the harm an individual might incur from the use of illicit drugs. I was motivated to write this piece when another PolicyMic pundit commented on last week’s story, asking if harm reduction was linked to the “decreased availability of marijuana." 

The basic principles of harm reduction, actually, do not have anything to do with the criminalization of drug use or the supply or availability of drugs on the street. They are measures that are intended to “reduce the negative consequences of drug use” that prioritize safety and individual autonomy, according to Harm Reduction Coalition, a pioneer harm reduction advocacy organization. The most widely known harm reduction tactic is needle exchange, which provides clean needles (read: not carrying HIV or Hepatitis C) to individuals that inject drugs intravenously.

The overall reaction to needle exchange facilities has been intensely positive. There exists significant empirical evidence that these programs help to reduce HIV transmission rates, but (as prohibitionists fear) don’t increase the percentage of experimental new drug users. However, although these positive results have been evident for more than a decade, there were only 203 registered needle exchange sites in 34 states in August 2012.

Why so few? The sites are inexpensive and require little manpower and little space. They have been proved to help reduce HIV transmission. Sounds like a win-win, right?

Unfortunately, the federal government put a ban on allocating federal funds to syringe exchange programs in 2009. This means that the centers cannot use any of their state’s share of the federal Department of Health funding and are reliant on state and local funds or community donations. This federal ban plays a big role explaining why there are so few syringe exchange centers today. Organizations like amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, argue that lifting the federal ban would help curtail federal overreach, increase public health, and be extreme cost savings to the government, because HIV prevention is much cheaper than HIV treatment.

I am optimistic about the future of harm reduction. Even Gil Kerlikowske, the U.S.’s “drug czar,” has added "harm reduction" to his vocabulary, a positive move away from the “war on drugs” rhetoric.

The Department of Justice’s statement that they would not sue states that had conflicting marijuana legalization policy was the first step in correcting federal-state drug law discrepancies. Users of medical marijuana can breath easier, not fearing a DEA raid after they come home from refilling their prescription. Perhaps lifting the ban on federal funds for needle exchange could be the second step. With the help of federal funds, there could be many more Duluths — municipal organizations that have the foresight to establish needle exchange facilities in their community (if they see a need for one).

Ending the federal ban and promoting harm reduction measures could bring our country closer to eradicating one of the drug war’s nastiest companions, HIV/AIDS. 

If you agree with amfAR, you can visit their online petition, send it to your legislators, and take part in the change that is sweeping the nation.