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Harm Reduction Pretense

Although we consider HEROIN helper to be part of the harm reduction movement, we do not feel very comfortable within it. The reason is that no one really agrees as to what "harm reduction" means. For many, it means encouraging people to use "soft" drugs like marijuana instead of "hard" drugs like heroin. This philosophy is at the heart of HEROIN by Humberto Fernandez. It is a philosophy at harms heroin users.

Drug "hardness" is a meaningless measure. It is not even clear what it is a measure of. I deal with this issue at some length in my book Heroin User's Handbook. My work and that of other people--most notably Dr. Norman Earl Zinberg--shows that people's ideas of how hard a drug is stem primarily from how the drug is administered. Drugs that are eaten tend to be seen as soft (e.g. caffeine). Drugs that are injected tend to be seen as hard (e.g. heroin). A good example of this is seen in the differing opinions about heroin and opium. Both drugs have the same "active ingredient" (morphine), but heroin is a "harder" drug.

Again and again, Fernandez shows how the government increased harm by enacting laws that decreased access to marijuana causing greater use of heroin. Nowhere in the book is mention made to the fact that laws are responsible for turning opium users into heroin users and heroin eaters into heroin injector. In Fernandez's opinion, heroin is simply a more harmful drug than marijuana. This opinion is presented as fact--a fact so well established (like the earth revolving around the sun) that it needn't even be proved.

Fernandez is not alone in his opinions, of course. NORML has long used similar arguments to promote its cause. These arguments usually go something like, "If marijuana were legal, more resources would be available to fight against dangerous drugs like heroin."

Underlying all of these arguments is the idea that people use heroin because it is addictive rather than because they like how it makes them feel. In other words, being high on one drug is the same as being high on another. But this is not true. Different drugs affect the brain in different ways. As a result, some people enjoy one drug more than another.

Forcing people who enjoy one drug to use another that is deemed less dangerous. is just a minor variant on our current policy of forcing them to use no drugs at all. In order to reduce the harm done by drug use, we must start by allowing people to use the drugs that they enjoy. Anything else is just the pretense of harm reduction.

by Dr. H
© 2001
Last Modified: 21 Jul 10


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