Posts Tagged ‘harm reduction’

Harm Reduction

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I just read a wonderful book, “Coming to Harm Reduction Kicking and Screaming: Looking for Harm Reduction in a 12-Step World,” by Dee-Dee Stout. The book is as delicious as its title. The first part of the book describes a little bit about what harm reduction is, and the latter parts of the book are interviews of treatment professionals. Half are from the “old timers” of harm reduction, including Bill Miller of Motivational Interviewing fame, and the famous Alan Marlatt. The other half of the interviews are from “12-stepping harm reductionists.”

It’s a fascinating read. These professionals describe their mental journey from believing abstinence-only recovery should be the goal for every addicted person, to believing whatever works is a much more practical approach. I’ve made a similar journey in my own mind, so I can relate.

Lately I’ve been reading, thinking, and talking to other professionals about harm reduction. This is an interesting topic because it inspires very strong feelings on both sides. Indeed, just the fact that there are two sides is somewhat remarkable. Who wouldn’t be enthusiastic about harm reduction?

It turns out that these two innocent words are laden with veiled meaning. A harm reductionist’s definition of the term may be something like, “Strategies for drug users and drug addicts, intended to reduce the harm caused by drug use.” But an anti-harm reductionist may see the term to mean, “Strategies which may reduce some harm to drug addicts, but that also prevent them from finding real recovery from drug addiction.”

The desire to get into recovery exists on a continuum. Some addicts want to stop all drugs and learn to live life drug-free. Those patients may embrace abstinence-only addiction treatment and feel comfortable with that approach. Other people may want to stop problematic use of one drug, but see no need to stop another. I see this often at my opioid treatment program. Some people want to quit opioids because of all the negative consequences, but don’t have any desire to stop marijuana, since they can’t see that it causes them any problems.

Other addicts don’t wish to stop using drugs at all, but prefer not to develop some of the negative consequences.

Here are some examples of harm reduction strategies:
 Needle exchange programs (NEPs). Clean needles are distributed to intravenous addicts, sometimes exchanged for used needles. NEPs have been shown to reduce transmission of HIV, and of other infectious diseases. Additionally, patients are less likely to get skin infections like cellulitis and abscesses when new needles are used
 Distributing information about safe injection practices. This can involve things like telling IV addicts about strategies like never using alone, and staggering injection times so that if one person has an overdose, the other one can summon help or use naloxone. It may include instructions on how to use a test dose, in case the product is higher purity than expected.
 Safe injection sites. You won’t find these in the US, but Canada and European nations have sites staffed with medical personnel where intravenous users can come to inject. If they have an overdose, personnel are immediately available to revive them.
 Naloxone kits. These kits can revive people who have had opioid overdoses. I have written much about them in the past, and it’s becoming more main stream to distribute these kits to opioid addicts and their families. Some pain management doctors and OTP doctors also prescribe these kits for their patients, in case of an overdose.

An astute observer will notice I did not list medication-assisted treatment among harm reduction strategies. This is because treatment of opioid addiction with methadone and buprenorphine should be considered a primary and definitive treatment of opioid addiction, not merely as one stop along the road of recovery. Some patients may wish to transition to drug-free recovery in the future, but it shouldn’t be required. Many patients will do better with less risk of relapse if they stay on MAT.

A false dichotomy between the ideas of “abstinence-only” and “harm reduction” proponents has been set up. Instead, we should view all treatment options as complementary to each other. All evidence-based addiction treatment options should offer improved quality of life for the people who use them.

Why not offer options to people who want to reduce the risk of drug use?

As a person with a strong twelve-step background, I found it difficult to embrace all of the harm reduction measures when I entered this field ten-plus years ago. Time, experience, and the medical literature have been my teachers, along with vivid human examples. Most of all, my patients have revealed to me how recovery from addiction rarely happens in a miraculous flash. Mostly, it involves small changes over long periods of time, with some setbacks along the way.

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Durham, North Carolina: First in the South to Provide Naloxone to Departing Inmates

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The county jail’s addiction treatment program in Durham County, North Carolina, just started giving naloxone overdose prevention kits to inmates leaving their program.

This program, called STARR (Substance Abuse Treatment and Recidivism Reduction) consists of around 83 hours of group therapy, addiction treatment education, and weekly 12-step meetings. STARR participants are also taught how to respond to an overdose, and how to use naloxone. Inmates completing this program are also eligible to enter an additional voluntary four-week program known as GRAD. All graduating inmates are offered a naloxone kit.

At any one time, the STARR program has about 40 inmates in treatment.

Only three county jails in North Carolina offer addiction treatment services. Besides Durham County, Mecklenburg and Buncombe Counties have similar addiction treatment programs, but neither of the latter two offer naloxone kits. The development of education and prevention of overdose was achieved only after long efforts by the STARR program’s director, Randy Tucker, collaboration with the Harm Reduction Coalition.

Durham County is setting the right example for the rest of the nation.

It’s important to teach inmates with addiction how to avoid overdose. Inmates with addiction are at high risk for a fatal overdose during the first few weeks after their incarceration. While in jail, their tolerance has dropped. If they leave jail and relapse using the same amount as before they went to jail, an overdose is likely, particularly if they are using opioids.

Studies on all continents show this marked increase in overdose death among opioid addicts leaving incarceration. The degree of increased risk is debatable. Some sources say the risk is increased four-fold and others estimate a hundred-fold increase in overdose deaths risk, mostly within the first two weeks after leaving incarceration.

Last year, four people leaving the Durham County jail had fatal overdoses.

If the US treated addiction as the public health problem that it is, all state, county, and federal jails would provide naloxone upon dismissal from incarceration. (I won’t even get into the arguably more important issue of providing adequate addition treatment to inmates whose main problem is addiction). But we don’t do that in this country, still preferring to see addiction as bad behavior by deviants.

Ferguson, Missouri…Baltimore, Maryland…think how the attitudes and outlook of citizens could change, if jailers started handing out naloxone kits to departing arrestees.

Even without words, this action would go a long way toward giving arrestees the message that law enforcement saw their lives are valuable and worth saving.

Harm Reduction

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In the interest of harm reduction, I’m going to describe precautions that addicts, still in active addiction, can take to reduce the risk of overdose death. This information can be accessed at: http://harmreduction.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/getting-off-right.pdf

1. Don’t use alone. Use a buddy system, to have someone who can call 911 in case you stop breathing. Do the same for another addict. Obviously you shouldn’t inject at the same time. Stagger your injection times.
Many states now have Good Samaritan laws that protect the overdose victim and the person calling 911 for help, so that police don’t give criminal charges to people who do the right thing by calling for help for an overdose.
Take a class on how to give CPR so that you can revive a friend or acquaintance with an overdose while you wait on EMS to arrive.

2. Get a naloxone kit. I’ve blogged about how one patient saved his sister with a naloxone kit. These are easy to use and very effective. You can read more about these kits at the Project Lazarus website: http://projectlazarus.org/

3. Use new equipment. Many pharmacies sell needles and syringes without asking questions. Your addict friends probably can tell you which pharmacies are the most understanding.
Don’t use a needle and syringe more than once. Repeated use dulls the needle’s point and causes more damage to the vein and surrounding tissue. Don’t try to re-sharpen on a matchbook – frequently this can cause burrs on the needle point which can cause even more tissue damage.

4. Don’t share any equipment. Many people who wouldn’t think of sharing a needle still share cottons, cookers, or spoons, but hepatitis C and HIV can be transmitted by sharing any of this other equipment. If you have to share or re-use equipment, wash needle and syringe with cold water several times, then do the same again with bleach. Finally, wash out the bleach with cold water. This reduces the risk of transmitting HIV and Hepatitis C, but isn’t foolproof.

5. Use a tester shot. Since heroin varies widely in its potency, use small amount of the drug to assess its potency. You can always use more, but once it’s been injected you can’t use less. The New England overdose deaths described by SAMHSA may have been avoided if the addicts had used smaller tester shots instead of shooting up the usual amount.

6. Use clean cotton to filter the drug. Use cotton from a Q-tip or cotton ball; cigarette filters are not as safe because they contain glass particles.

7. Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing your shot, and clean the injection site with an alcohol wipe if possible. Don’t use lemon juice to help dissolve heroin, as it carries a contaminant that can cause a serous fungal infection.

8. Opioid overdoses are much more likely to occur in an addict who hasn’t used or has used less than usual for a few days, weeks, or longer. Overdose risks are much higher in people just getting out of jail and just getting out of a detox. Patients who have recently stopped using Suboxone or Subutex may be more likely to overdose if they resume their usual amount of IV opioids.

9. Don’t mix drugs. Many opioid overdoses occur with combinations of opioids and alcohol or benzodiazepines, though overdose can certainly occur with opioids alone.

10. Don’t inject an overdosed person with salt water, ice water, or a stimulant such as cocaine or crystal methamphetamine – these don’t work and may cause harm. Don’t put the person in an ice bath and don’t leave them alone. Call for help, and give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if you can.

To people who believe I’m giving addicts permission to use, I’d like to remind them that addicts don’t care if someone gives them permission or not. If an addict wants to use, what other people think matters little. But giving people information about how to inject more safely may help keep the addict alive until she wants to get help.

The Harm Reduction Coalition has excellent information on its website: http://harmreduction.org