The issue of substance abuse and the emphasis on the harm reduction approach – The European Sting – Critical News & Insights on European Politics, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Business & Technology

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This article was written exclusively for The European Sting by Ms UWASE Sandrine, a medical student at the University of Rwanda, Rwanda. It is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA), a cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this article belong strictly to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of IFMSA on the subject, nor that of The European Sting.

[1]Addiction is defined as a chronic, recurrent disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences. After many criminal and societal penalties, we come to people who are still using drugs and far too many people are still dying. Making drugs illegal has nothing to do with stopping people from using them. Judging and criticizing addicts increases stigma and self-hatred. Not only are they caught in a hopeless cycle of incarceration, violence, poverty, marginalization and discrimination created by our drug laws, but they are also at the peak of HIV infection and other communicable diseases.

[2]According to the WHO, people who inject drugs are at an increased risk of contracting HIV, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis B and C, in addition to an overdose. Worldwide, approximately 11 million people inject drugs. [3]About 1.4 million of these people are living with HIV [4]while 39.4% have viraemic HCV infection, recommends in this way a set of risk reduction interventions that will reduce the overall number of overdose deaths and the transmission of these diseases.

Harm reduction contrasts sharply with a punitive approach to problematic drug use. It is based on minimizing negative consequences and promoting optimal health and social inclusion. It includes strategies such as needle exchange programs that reduce the risk of contracting HIV, supervised injection and consumption sites, and overdose prevention sites. To say that such programs are an endorsement for drugs is like saying that a hospital is an endorsement for disease or a chemotherapy clinic is an endorsement for cancer. These are all places you go to treat a disease and addiction is a disease and an effective and proven treatment for this is harm reduction.

Withdrawal management can also be considered a harm reduction strategy. Decades of experience and evidence prove that getting the antidote naloxone into the hands of people who use drugs is the most effective way to prevent an overdose, as are alternative treatments like the widely prescribed methadone. to heroin users.

Community psychosocial support can also help individuals overcome social barriers and create solutions that work best for their community. Offering immunity for drug law violations, as another strategy, will encourage addicts to seek life-saving help.

These drug use strategies can improve health, bond, and dramatically reduce suffering and death. We the world are stuck in the idea that the only option for addicts is to stop using drugs. Offering them a clean needle and a safe place to inject and dispose of them is the first step to treatment and recovery.

Harm reduction is said to send the wrong message to our children about drug addicts, but if I remember correctly, those drug addicts are our children. I see harm reduction as a step towards the abstinence approach. People who use drugs are the experts on their own experience and we should give those who suffer every chance to experience the miracle of healing. Handcuffs won’t solve the drug crisis. So why aren’t harm reduction approaches taking off?


1. “Drug Abuse and Addiction.” National Institutes of Health. US Department of Health and Human Services, July 13, 2020.

2. “People who inject drugs.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization. Accessed June 25, 2022.

3. “Executive Summary”. World Drug Report, 2020, 10–24.

4. Des Jarlais, Don C. “Commentary on GrebelyEt al. (2019): Ending HCV Epidemics Among People Who Inject Drugs. » Addiction 114, no. 1 (2018): 167–68.

5. “The Harm Reduction Model of Drug Treatment: Mark Tyndall.” YouTube, May 9, 2018.

About the Author

UWASE Sandrine is a medical student at the University of Rwanda, Rwanda. She is affiliated with MEDSAR Rwanda (IFMSA NMO) in the Public Health Standing Committee. Sandrine is more committed to youth empowerment and interested in equitable health care. She is a strong advocate for quality health care for all and is involved and passionate about research.


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