Abstinence vs. Harm Reduction: What Is the Right Choice for Addiction Treatment?

question mark on chalkboardAbstinence-based addiction treatment is based on the idea that there is no “safe” amount of drinking or drug use for people in recovery. Addiction is a chronic disease whose symptoms can be controlled. However, the condition cannot be cured since relapse is always a possibility.

Harm reduction is not a treatment method. Instead, it is a philosophy that accepts substance abuse occurs. It says that since people are going to abuse substances anyway, it’s important to educate them about safer consumption methods.

Abstinence-Based Addiction Recovery

In an abstinence-based addiction recovery, clients undergo detox to get free from the influence of all chemicals. After that point, they start their addiction treatment, which includes individual and group therapy. It also includes a number of treatment options designed to model a healthy lifestyle that includes the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual components of wellness.

Clients are expected to completely stay away from using all mind-altering substances. The only exception would be a medical emergency where pain medications would be allowed for a short time following major surgery. Even in that situation, the medication should not be something that would produce a “buzz” or a “high.”

An abstinence-based addiction recovery program will attempt to replace the client using his drug of choice with another, more positive activity. This is based on the idea that addiction isn’t curable, but a person in recovery can manage his disease by taking things one day at a time.

Harm Reduction Concept

Once of the basic concepts of harm reduction is that substance abuse exists in the world and that this should be accepted as fact. Rather than condemning people who use drugs (legal and illegal), a better approach is to put time and energy toward minimizing the harmful consequences of their actions.

Drug use is part of a much larger, complicated issue, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition. There’s a range of patterns of use, from severe drug abuse to complete abstinence, and some ways of using drugs are definitely safer options than others.

Harm reduction is concerned with issues such as:

  • Overdose prevention
  • Hepatitis C transmission
  • Fentanyl testing for opioids

Overdose Prevention

Overdose prevention education is an important aspect of harm reduction. Drug users, their families, friends and the service providers who work with them need accurate information about drug use and abuse. If the people around an opioid user are aware of the signs of opioid overdose, naloxone can be administered as an antidote if necessary.

Hepatitis C Transmission

Hepatitis C transmission (HCV) is an issue that goes hand in hand with intravenous drug use. If the syringes or injecting equipment is contaminated, then users are at high risk of becoming infected with HCV. If this condition is left untreated, it can lead to liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver.

Fentanyl Testing for Opioids

Fentanyl testing strips are used in an off-label manner to test street drug opioid samples for the presence of fentanyl. The testing strips, which are the same type used to test urine samples, are used by people who inject opioids.

Once a person has tested an opioid sample, they can then decide for themselves whether they want to go ahead and ingest the drugs or not. If they decide they want to use the drugs that have tested positive for fentanyl, the user can take measures that will lower the risk of an overdose, such as injecting the drug more slowly, trying a test shot first, or making sure another (sober) person is present when the dose is being injected for safety reasons. The user can also make sure that a naloxone kit is close by before using the fentanyl-laced drug.

Abstinence vs. Harm Reduction: Choose Addiction Treatment

Once an addiction takes hold of someone, they no longer have a choice about whether they will use their drug of choice. The addicted person needs it, or they will become ill. At that point, an addict may be thinking more about getting high than harm reduction strategies for staying safe. An abstinence-based program allows a client to learn new strategies for living without turning to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.

English Mountain Recovery offers a long-term, gender-specific, residential addiction treatment program for men and women. All you or your loved one need to get started is the desire to change.

By Jodee Redmond

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