Advocates of “harm reduction” as a strategy with adolescent drug users are claiming success, to the dismay of some anti-drug crusaders who prefer an “abstinence” approach, Youth Today reports. Many critics equate harm reduction with legalizing drugs, or at least shrugging off drug use. Most government and private agencies dealing with youth drug use won’t touch the subject. “Harm reduction is a political lightning rod,” says William Miller, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico and a specialist in the treatment of addictive behavior.
Henri Williams, program director of substance abuse services at the Berkshire Farm Center youth facility in rural upstate New York, believes in harm reduction, or at least his version of it. He says it’s the most effective strategy for dealing with teenage drug and alcohol users who don’t think they have a drug or alcohol problem.
For Williams, Youth Today says, “harm reduction means not using scare tactics with those youths, not insisting that you have all the answers, not preaching that any drug use at all is the end of the world and not kicking kids out of a treatment program if you discover that they’ve been drinking or smoking pot when they’re away from the program. You keep trying to educate them.”
The idea is quietly catching on in the mainstream of adolescent substance-abuse education and treatment. Early indications suggest that Williams’ program could be as effective as other strategies for drug users, including some abstinence-only programs. Williams says that of the 290 kids in the Berkshire Farm program in 2000, 61 percent abstained from drug use during the year. A more complete study is under way.