National Drug Strategy
National Drug Strategy

The National Drug Strategy 2010-2015

Pillar 3: Harm reduction

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Harm reduction works to reduce the adverse health, social and economic impacts of drug use on communities, families and individuals.

An individual’s engagement in drug use, illegal drug supply or illegal drug manufacture generally has flow-on health, social, economic, environmental and other consequences. These consequences extend to family, the workplace, neighbourhoods, the community and the individual.

In relation to alcohol, efforts to prevent drink driving and reduce the incidence of alcohol-related road accidents have been a key harm-reduction approach over a long period. Programs and interventions to tackle risky drinking, including liquor licensing and responsible service of alcohol, education and information programs and community-based approaches, have aimed to reduce alcohol-related public violence. Brief interventions, treatment for alcohol dependence and family support services can help reduce the incidence and impact of family conflict and violence.

In relation to tobacco, harm-reduction efforts have included minimising exposure to second-hand smoke through bans on smoking in workplaces and enclosed public spaces and, in some jurisdictions, bans on smoking in cars where children are present.

In relation to injecting drug use, needle and syringe programs have been the main harm-reduction approach, helping to slow the spread of blood-borne viruses like HIV and hepatitis C. Readily available needle disposal facilities and other strategies as simple as well-lit streets have helped improve community amenity in areas where injecting drug use takes place. Some jurisdictions have used innovative approaches, including a medically supervised injecting centre in one jurisdiction.

For illegal drugs more generally, programs to divert offenders from the criminal justice environment into treatment or other health interventions have helped increase the chances of recovery and reduce the likelihood of individual recidivism harming the community. Strategies to prevent and effectively manage drug overdose have also been important harm-reduction responses. In addition, some jurisdictions have implemented road-side drug testing to detect and deter drug-impaired driving.

Other harm-reduction approaches have included the provision of chill-out spaces, water, information and peer support and emergency medical services at events where drug use may be occurring.

Objective 1: Reduce harms to community safety and amenity

A significant and sometimes overlooked harm from drug use is the impact it can have in reducing the extent to which people feel safe in their communities. Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to threats and assaults, vandalism, public disorder and road accidents. Illegal drug use—particularly injecting drug use—can affect people’s perceptions of the safety of their community and the business confidence of an area. The illegal drug trade and drug use contributes to significant social costs through property crime and violence.

As higher-density living becomes the norm in our cities, greater attention is needed on public safety and health services, and supporting social connectedness. This also involves improving perceptions of public safety and amenity.

Rural and remote communities, and Indigenous communities, are also affected by the impact on safety and amenity generated by alcohol, tobacco and other drug use.


Objective 2: Reduce harms to families

The families of people using drugs—their parents, partners and children—often suffer significant impacts from their drug use. Support needs to be available to families, particularly with children, to help them manage the stresses they may be experiencing from a family member’s drug use and help engage them in managing the individual’s drug-related problem. Families also aid in recovery. Services for people with drug-related problems need to recognise the impact of drug use on families and help ensure they are provided or connected with the right support. This applies both to specialist alcohol and other drug treatment services and to policing, social welfare and other services that may be interacting with people with drug-related problems.

Alcohol is most commonly supplied to minors by parents and other family members. There are mixed community views on introducing teenagers to alcohol, with some support for introduction in a safe family environment. However, emerging health evidence highlights the importance of delaying introduction to alcohol as long as possible.

Drinking during pregnancy can have a significant impact on children in utero and cause a range of disorders known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). These include birth defects and developmental difficulties. FASD has been a particular issue in some Indigenous communities. Coordinated education and information campaigns and other clinical and community-led strategies are needed to help prevent FASD, and action is needed to improve the diagnosis and clinical management of affected children and to make available appropriate supports to those children and their families.

In relation to tobacco, families and communities have an ongoing responsibility to protect children from second-hand smoke and to help prevent children learning to smoke by example from parents and other respected elders. Efforts to reduce smoking among pregnant women, and prevention of the exposure of pregnant women and babies to second-hand smoke should be particular priorities.


Objective 3: Reduce harms to individuals

Some of the major challenges in responding to the harms to individuals caused by drug use and poly-drug use lie in making individuals aware of the harms to their health, safety and wellbeing from drug use, motivating them to seek and engage with treatment, and connecting them with appropriate treatment and other support services.

For many individuals this requires a change of perspective and self-acknowledgement of a drug-related problem before there is a willingness to enter treatment.

Injecting drug use carries additional risks and harms for the individual, requiring particularly focused approaches. Disadvantaged populations may also be at greater risk of harm from drug use.


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