NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 13, 2009

Most drug-addiction programs follow the principle of harm reduction, a philosophy that argues that the best way to save users' lives isn't to force them off illegal drugs.  Instead, its adherents teach safer ways to use drugs -- supplying clean needles to prevent the spread of disease or teaching how to avoid overdosing.  The programs are credited with saving lives in cities across the United States; yet, many program workers are dying from drug overdoses, says the Wall Street Journal.

Worker drug abuse is becoming a huge problem and harm reduction leaders have struggled to address it, adds the Journal:

  • In New York and San Francisco, at least 5 harm reduction staffers have died of overdoses.
  • These include needle-exchange founders in both cities, as well as psychologist John Watters, a needle-exchange advocate who started a study to track how outreach programs benefited drug users and died from an opiate overdose in 1995.

However, studies suggest that needle exchanges work:

  • In San Francisco, Chicago and New Mexico, heroin-related deaths dropped after users were taught how to administer an anti-overdose medication to each other, and the programs have been found to help reduce HIV infections.
  • In New York City, the rate of new HIV infections among injection-drug users dropped more than 75 percent between 1995 and 2002 as the number of clean needles distributed doubled.

Although federal funding for such programs has grown in recent years, they still face many challenges.  They can exact a toll on those who operate them; staffers typically earn little or no money for working on bleak urban front lines with traumatized users.  Programs tend to be run on the cheap, often giving little of the training and support.  Those dealing with other factors -- depression, history of drug use or personal stresses -- may find it particularly hard to cope, says the Journal.

Source: Justin Scheck, "Heroin Program's Deadly Toll," Wall Street Journal, January 10-11, 2009.

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