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[ Opinion ]

Coming to Terms With Harm Reduction

I’ve had an interesting relationship with harm reduction over the years. Prior to sobering up in January of 2005 I tried my luck with controlled drinking and failed miserably. At the time I didn’t know about the phenomenon of craving when it comes to alcohol. I’m one of the 10 per cent of the population who have the disease of alcoholism. A few years into recovery I also tried to cut down my smoking but failed at that as well. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy.

Early into recovery I became an addictions counsellor and my first job was with the same agency that I got sober at. It was a disease-model, abstinence-based, centre which put heavy emphasis into the 12 Steps of recovery. At that time I was steadfast in my belief that abstinence was the only way to achieve recovery, the 12 Step way at that. For my own recovery I feel that was the place I needed to be. For me, harm reduction doesn’t work and will only lead to disaster. As my career branched out to other treatment centres I began to take another look at my devotion to the idea that abstinence is the only way to go. When I speak of abstinence I’m talking about abstinence from all mind altering substances, including alcohol, marijuana and benzodiazepines, no matter what your preferred method of escape was. Oxycontin use was on the rise and more and more people were seeking treatment for addiction to it. A segment of these people became addicted to Oxy after a doctor prescribed it to them for a legitimate reason. This particular group never had an issue with alcohol or other substances. I started feel that this group of people may be able to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana safely. However, they would have to be very careful in case a problem arose.

Over the years I’ve been in recovery and addiction counselling I saw several types of harm reduction. From Methadone to Suboxone, I’m still of the belief that when it comes to opiate addiction (not in the case of the aforementioned population segment) the greatest chance for an optimal quality life is complete abstinence from alcohol and all mind altering substances. However, I’m no longer so naïve as to think that everyone can accomplish this and have realized that some individuals will be on these types of medications for years, maybe even life. However, I firmly believe that the harm reduction factor is wiped out if doctors continue to prescribe these medications knowing that the persons using them are using other substances at the same time.

Recently I changed up my career. I am no longer an addictions counsellor but am what’s called a Peer Support Worker helping marginalized segments of our population. Most notably people suffering from mental health issues, addictions and homelessness. As part of my new job I get to ride in an Outreach Van handing out food, clothes, blankets, etc. Part of the van’s function is also a needle exchange program. Not only do we hand out clean needles but arm ties, cooking kits and other types of paraphernalia needed to shoot-up substances. I know that I would not have been able to carry out this type of work early in my recovery but today it doesn’t bother me in the least. It’s not my job, professionally or personally, to tell people how they should live their lives. If they ask me for a better way then I’m available to guide them in that direction. Until then I’m just happy to be preventing the spread of disease and allowing addicts to maintain some level of dignity.