Drug policies should focus on reducing the harmful consequences rather than the scale of drug use and markets

Over the past century, national governments have focused drug control strategies on reducing the scale of drug markets, primarily through enforcement and deterrence measures, in their efforts to reduce drug-related harms. These attempts have been largely unsuccessful, and these policies have often resulted in additional harms. For instance, laws criminalising drug use and the possession of injection ‘paraphernalia’ encourage the police to harass people who use drugs at needle-exchange sites, keeping them away from disease-prevention services.

Evidence and experience shows that policies and programmes that explicitly focus on reducing specific harms are more effective than those that attempt to create a ‘drug-free’ society. Harm reduction measures aim to reduce the harmful consequences of both drug use and markets. Harm reduction often refers to health promotion measures (such as needle exchange programmes, prevention and treatment), but it also encompasses measures that reduce a wide range of economic, social and health-related harms for the individual, the community and the overall population. Harm reduction is a pragmatic approach that recognises that the reduction of the scale of drug markets and use is not the only and most important objective of drug policy. Governments should therefore start by assessing the drug-related harms that have the most negative impact on their citizens. They will then be in a better position to design and implement strategies to tackle those specific problems.