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Deck The Halls with Harm Reduction

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

By Demetrius Young, CCPRD Project Associate

It’s the holiday season! Lots of people can be found decorating Christmas trees, watching new releases like Jingle Jangle, or having a hot cup of cider. And for many individuals and families in recovery from substance use, having a holiday harm reduction plan is part of their prep work for the holidays.

Harm reduction is a buzzword that is growing in popularity. However, all may not know what it means. Laura Fry from Live4Lali and Northwest CARA member defines harm reduction as:

“A set of practical strategies that reduce negative consequences of drug use, incorporating a spectrum of strategies from safer use, to managed use, to abstinence. Harm reduction strategies meet drug users ‘where they are at’ addressing conditions of use, along with the use itself.”

Harm reduction can take many forms among people who use drugs and those in recovery. For one person, it might mean finding a needle exchange program to have access to clean needles. For another, it might mean getting Narcan from a community outreach worker. It can also include someone who drinks flavored sparkling soda at parties instead of alcohol or mixed drug cocktails. It could also look like changing or reducing drug use, such as someone going from using heroin to marijuana instead.

It is not uncommon to hear some people respond to harm reduction with, “So you are making it ok for people to use drugs?” This is not true. Without education, this stigmatizing narrative can normalize an unhelpful thought process. To help combat this, it is important to differentiate myths from facts:


  • Harm reduction encourages drug use.

  • Harm reduction is opposed to abstinence and therefore conflicts with traditional substance use treatment.

  • Harm reduction permits harmful behavior and maintains an “anything goes" attitude.


  • Harm reduction is neither for nor against drug use. It does not seek to stop drug use unless individuals make that their goal. Harm reduction focuses on supporting people's efforts to reduce the harms created by drug use or other risky behaviors.

  • Harm reduction is not at odds with abstinence. Instead, it includes it as one possible goal across a continuum of possibilities.

  • Harm reduction neither condones nor condemns any behaviors. Instead, it evaluates the consequences of behaviors and tries to reduce the harms that those behaviors pose for individuals, families, and communities.

These myths and facts were pulled from Laura Fry’s harm reduction presentation which can be viewed here.

During this holiday season, many people are dealing with their own recovery or trauma on top of a pandemic. People in recovery work hard to not fall into old habits and negative coping mechanisms. To better support them, it is important to ask them directly how a loved one can be there for them. While gatherings are not encouraged this year, being aware of someone’s needs is a form of harm reduction.

Harm reduction is something that is needed in the recovery community. It puts the power back in the person's hands who otherwise feels powerless to their addiction. It helps to remember that harm reduction happens all around us, including each time a person uses a seatbelt or puts on their mask to go outside. Harm reduction works! Stay safe.

Looking for recovery resources? Visit the CPYD Recovery Resource Guide to get connected with a therapist, Naloxone, peer groups, and other tools to support recovery.

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