Harm reduction is a strategy for treating addiction that begins with acceptance. A friendlier, less disciplined sister of abstinence, this philosophy aims to reduce the overall level of drug use among people who are unable or simply unwilling to stop. What should naturally follow is a decrease in the many negative consequences of drug use.
In other words: progress, not perfection, as advocates of Alcoholics Anonymous often say.
Most European countries and Canada have embraced the idea of harm reduction, designing policies that help people with drug problems to live better, healthier lives rather than to punish them.
On the front lines of addiction in the United States, some addiction specialists have also begun to work toward this end.
Joe Schrank, program director and founder of High Sobriety, is one of them. He says his Los Angeles-based treatment center uses medicinal cannabis as a detox and maintenance protocol for people who have more severe addictions, although it’s effectiveness is not scientifically proven.
“So it’s a harm-reduction theory,” he said. “With cannabis, there is no known lethal dose; it can be helpful for certain conditions.”
“Some say it’s hypocritical because, you know, you’re supposed to go to rehab to get off drugs,” said Schrank, who recently celebrated 20 years of sobriety from alcohol and all drugs. “And cessation of drug use can be a goal for some people, but pacing is also important.” Some patients want to gradually move into abstinence, weaning themselves off drugs over time. Others want to maintain sobriety from a drug by using a less harsh drug, such as cannabis.
Others, including Todd Stumbo, CEO of Blue Ridge Mountain Recovery Center in Georgia, do not favor using marijuana as treatment for addiction.
“I’m all about adding interventions and therapeutic techniques that have proven to be significantly profound in the changes to somebody’s life and treatment. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there’s evidence to substantiate that marijuana’s had that effect,” says Stumbo. “Our take is abstinence based and we use every tool or intervention we can that’s been proven effective in the past.”
Still, harm reduction is gaining acceptance in the wider field of addiction specialists in the U.S.
“In principle, what we have aimed for many years is to find interventions that would lead to complete abstinence,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Practically, though, that has been very difficult to achieve with relapsing addictions.
“One of the things is, we don’t have any evidence-based medication that has proven to be efficacious for the treatment of cocaine addiction,” Volkow said. “So we currently have no medicine to intervene, and it can be a very severe addiction and actually quite dangerous.”
Dangerous because it gives users a high that literally alters the brain. Medical consequences of cocaine addiction include seizure, stroke and bleeding within the brain.
“We have started to explore the extent to which interventions that can decrease the amount of drug consumed can have benefits to the individual,” Volkow said, adding that she’d make this same argument for opioids and heroin. “It would be valuable to decrease the amount of drug consumed.”
Schrank is clear on the value of simply reducing drug use.
“We think of addiction as this light switch you can turn on and off,” he said. “What we’re learning is that for some people, it’s similar to scuba diving: You can only come up 20 feet so often or you get very, very sick. When people stop immediately and that abruptly, it really makes them vulnerable.”
Schrank, who readily concedes there are possible health and addiction risks with marijuana, says he offers his cannabis detox and maintenance protocol to people addicted to crack cocaine as well as those trying to kick opioids. Through the years, he says, he’s treated about 50 people with this technique and expects to see “more people wanting to try to have a voice in their recovery rather than just plug into systems telling them what to do.”
Marijuana “can really help people with pain management and other health issues, or it can help them be safer,” Schrank said.