Harm Reduction

Harm reduction is a range of practical strategies and ideas focused on reducing the harmful consequences associated with drug use and other risky health behaviours1. The principle of harm reduction is grounded in social justice and emphasizes respecting the rights of an individual to choice1 and addressing the inequalities of health and wellbeing in the drug using community2.

Harm reduction strategies, surrounding drug use, recognize that abstaining from drugs may not be realistic or even desirable for everyone. Harm reduction strategies are community-based, user-driven, non-judgmental and address systems that isolate and marginalize individuals1.

The key issues related to harm reduction and drug misuse include:

  1. Improving access to services providing sterile, single-use supplies
  2. Educating individuals about safer drug use practices to reduce risky behaviour
  3. Preventing transmission of blood borne viruses and pathogens between individuals e.g. HIV, Hepatitis C and B and various sexually transmitted infections
  4. Reducing the risk of overdose through distribution of prevention kits

Brief Overview of Harm Reduction in Ontario

1989 The first Needle Syringe Program is established through Toronto Public Health
1997 Needle Syringe Programs are established as mandatory provincial programs; no minimum standards or guidelines available
2004 Ontario Needle Syringe Programs distributed over 3.2 million sterile needles and syringes
2006 Ontario Harm Reduction Distribution Program was established
2006 31 out of 36 public health units operated needle exchange services
2007 The Ontario Harm Reduction Distribution Program distributed 412,000 cookers to Needle Syringe Programs
2008 Ontario Public Health Standards state that the Boards of Health in all Public Health regions “shall ensure access to a variety of harm reduction program delivery models which shall include the provision of sterile needles and syringes and may include other evidence-informed harm reduction strategies in response to local surveillance;” all 36 public health units are distributing
2012 In all 36 health unit regions, individuals can access clean supplies, education and support through needle exchange services
2012 The Ontario Harm Reduction Distribution Program distributed 2,560,000 cookers to Needle Syringe Programs

Introduction Into Harm Reduction

For a great, brief introduction into harm reduction, you are encouraged to view the following short video entitled ‘Harm Reduction and Me’ featuring Dr. Jenny Scott from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.


  1. Leonard L & Germain A. Ontario Harm Reduction Distribution Program: Final Outcome Evaluation. 2009.
  2. Strike C, Leonard L, Millson M, Anstice S, Berkeley N, Medd E. Ontario Needle Exchange Programs: Best Practices Recommendations. Toronto: Ontario Needle Exchange Coordinating Committee. 2006.