What is harm reduction?

Why is harm reduction important?

What can you can do to advocate for harm reduction policies and how to do it?

Local Speakers and Organizations

SSDP Harm Reduction


What is harm reduction?

Harm reduction is the idea that with any dangerous or risky behavior, that there are steps we can take and changes we can make to reduce harm. Harm reduction as  applied to drug use and/or drug policy, is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. It incorporates a spectrum of strategies from safer use to abstinence only.

Harm reduction is also considered a social justice movement based on the belief that people who use drugs have rights, and should be respected. Because true harm reduction should be designed to meet people where they’re at, there is no universal definition of, or formula for implementing harm reduction. Rather, harm reduction should be based on the individual and community’s needs. The following guide gives you and your chapter a “menu” of options for advocating for harm reduction policies and practices on your campus.


Why is harm reduction important?

The Harm Reduction Coalition considers the following principles central to harm reduction practice.

  • Accepts, for better and or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them.
  • Understands drug use as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviors from severe abuse to total abstinence, and acknowledges that some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others.
  • Establishes quality of individual and community life and well-being–not necessarily cessation of all drug use–as the criteria for successful interventions and policies.
  • Calls for the non-judgmental, non-coercive provision of services and resources to people who use drugs and the communities in which they live in order to assist them in reducing attendant harm.
  • Ensures that drug users and those with a history of drug use routinely have a real voice in the creation of programs and policies designed to serve them.
  • Affirms drugs users themselves as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use, and seeks to empower users to share information and support each other in strategies which meet their actual conditions of use.
  • Recognizes that the realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination and other social inequalities affect both people’s vulnerability to and capacity for effectively dealing with drug-related harm.
  • Does not attempt to minimize or ignore the real and tragic harm and danger associated with licit and illicit drug use.


What you can do to advocate for harm reduction policies and how to do it

This is a grassroots guide to educate your chapter, community and legislators about the importance and need for harm reduction policies and practices. This is just a reference for your chapter – ultimately, you will have to decide what strategies work for your campus and community. Contact your Outreach Coordinator to help put together an action plan.

Ideas for action are listed in order of least difficult to most difficult.

  1. Devote one chapter meeting to educate chapter members on harm reduction.
      • Steps to a successful meeting:
        1. Conduct Research. What is harm reduction? How is your school’s drug policy an example of harm reduction? Where does it fail to reduce harm? What about your school’s education or  treatment programs? Are they abstinence-only, or do they offer steps and guidance on how to reduce harm? In what ways could your school improve? Compile this into a presentation.
        2. Brainstorm. Allow enough time for chapter members to talk about the issue and decide what direction your chapter wants to go. Use this guide as a starting point. Remember, harm reduction should be designed to meet people where they’re at, and be tailored based on the individual and community’s needs. Consider forming a committee to spearhead efforts.
        3. Resources.
          1. Safety First – Drug Policy Alliance
          2. Effie Nulman – The Evolution of Harm Reduction
          3. Over the Influence – The Harm Reduction Guide for Managing Drugs and Alcohol

  2. Exercise your voice: Write a letter to the editor (LTE) about the importance of harm reduction based policies and practices. One of the easiest ways to get press is to write a Letter To the Editor (LTE). The Media Awareness Project is a clearinghouse for LTEs about the Drug War. It is user-friendly, and offers tips on how to write a LTE.
    • Tips to Getting Published:
      1. Make it Local. Relate it to an article recently published in the source.
      2. Find an Angle. Is your school thinking about implementing a new harm reduction policy or practice? Or, did you find some startling news through your research? Hook your readers.
      3. Make it Timely. News is now. Respond to a published article within a day or two.
      4. Follow Directions. Different newspapers have different deadlines and word requirements.
      5. Simple is Best. Make one argument. Third grade reading level is standard.
    • Use your Resources. Check out LTE Tips on our Resources page for a guide. Contact your Outreach Coordinator if you have any questions.
    • Spread the Word. When your LTE is published, be sure to post it to various Facebook groups, and let your Outreach Coordinator know!
    • Make media a cornerstone of your chapter’s actions. Think about it every time your chapter does anything. The Media Survival Guide, located in SSDP Chapter Start-up kits, breaks down different types of media tools. Contact your Outreach Coordinator for press lists and talking points.
    • Additional Resources:
      1. Tips to Writing a LTE
      2. More Tips

  3. Invite a Harm Reduction expert to your campus. If your chapter plans on passing a student government resolution or lobbying the university administration on this issue, build support and awareness on campus by inviting a speaker to your campus.
    • Steps to a successful event:
      1. Find a Good Speaker. Good speakers convey enthusiasm, build a sense of community, and impart important information. As a general rule, don’t pay for an honorarium unless your student government funds it. Enough drug policy experts are stoked for the opportunity. Check out the Speaker Ideas at the bottom or ask for recommendations on SSDP Chapter Leaders. Your Outreach Coordinator can also connect you to good speakers and help you book them.
      2. Book the event. Two or three people should organize the event. The core organizer should nail down a date that works for chapter members, the speaker, and the university. Check your school’s calendar to make sure your event won’t have to compete with the same audience. Allow at least one month to plan for the event.
    • Pack the House. Find a few professors or TAs to offer extra credit for students attending the event. Blast chapter lists, personal lists, and SSDP Chapter Leaders as well as the Regional Facebook groups (Heartland, Mountain, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, Pacific). Advertise in the school newspaper, flier, and chalk the sidewalks/classroom boards. Make announcements in related classes. Invite the student government, professors and key administrators.
    • Press. Designate one person as the media spokesperson, fax out a media advisory, and follow-up.
    • Advance Work. Call and confirm your invited speaker’s arrival time, equipment needs, and lodging. Arrive early at the airport to pick them up. Have a back-up plan: what will you do if the speaker is late? What if the room has no chairs?
    • Bang for your Buck. Collect name, email address and phone from attendees. Unless they opt-out, add them to your chapter list. Promote your organization before the event, table, and stick around for questions.
    • Follow-up. Be sure to send the speaker a thank-you note, and add attendees to your chapter list.

  4. Lobby Student Government and Faculty Government to Support Harm Reduction Policies and Practices. There are many harm reduction policies and practices that your chapter can advocate for on campus. Resolutions can be a powerful way to exemplify student support for these initiatives to community members, media, and legislators and can be helpful  for when SSDP members meet with stakeholders.
    • How to Lobby your Student Government and Faculty Government:
      1. Find a Champion. Do your research, and find a student government representative that will help you pass the resolution. Contact the person and e-mail them the Legislative Paper based on the harm reduction policy you are hoping to pass and request a meeting.
      2. Know the Process. Ask your champion what you need to do to get the resolution passed. It will probably involve presenting your argument at a meeting and educating other members.
      3. Garner Media. This is a great time to write an opinion-editorial about why it is important for the student government to pass the resolution. Positive press will help. Notify the press when you pass the resolution.
      4. Use your Resources. Keep the national office updated on your progress. Your Outreach Coordinator is here to help you with logistics, talking points and legislative questions.

  5. Lobby University Administration to Improve University Drug Policy.
    • Change draconian drug policies. Many universities have draconian policies dealing with drug use on residence halls and/or campus. For example, University of Iowa students suspected of drug use are routinely arrested, kicked out of the dorms, and forced into drug treatment. University of Iowa SSDP is working to reform this counter-productive policy. Several years ago, Ohio University SSDP prevented university administration from implementing zero-tolerance marijuana policy. NORML Alumni and Dancesafe.org Executive Director, Marc Brandl, used the media to embarrass American University administration for enforcing zero-tolerance policies.
    • Establish formal harm reduction policies for student groups hosting parties on campus (including Greek life!) Student groups on campus often exist as the center of social life on campus, yet each group often has varying degrees of commitment to harm reduction policies and practices. Check out Stanford’s Party Pros for a set of important policies that students should keep in mind when throwing parties that can help keep themselves and their campus community healthier and safer. Lobby university administration to make these policies standard across all student groups.

  6. Lobby University Administration to Improve Harm Reduction Education on Campus.
      • Coordinate a Naloxone training. Opiate overdose has been on the rise over the past few years. Naloxone, or Narcan is a drug that reverses opiate overdose. Coordinate a Naloxone training for RAs, campus police, other students. Contact your Outreach Coordinator for more information.
      • Start a Drug Resource Center on Campus. Scarlett Swerdlow, SSDP’s former Executive Director and alumni of the UC Berkeley SSDP chapter, worked with UC Berkeley SSDP to procure funding and start a drug resource center on campus. The drug resource center provides free, factual, science-based drug education information to students. The center frequently educates fraternities and sororities about ways to drink responsibly.
      • Work with University Administration on school drug/alcohol education programs. Sometimes the best way to promote change is to start from the inside out.
        1. Find out what programs your school already offers, whether it’s the orientation program for all incoming students, tobacco cessation programs, alcohol education programs and more.
        2. Conduct a survey on drug/alcohol education programs at school. What are its strengths? Weaknesses? How can it be improved? Where can these programs further emphasize harm reduction and holistic wellbeing? What information do students need, but aren’t getting?
        3. Sign up to go through these programs yourself, so that you can share your experience with others.

7. Lobby University Administration to Add / Improve Harm Reduction Programs on Campus.

  • Start a Safe Ride program. Safe Ride is a service provided to students as a safe and free alternative to walking alone after dark. Safe Ride drivers provide rides from campus to destinations off campus and back to campus.
        1. University of Connecticut SSDP started UConn Sober Rides because the school sponsored sober ride program was discontinued. Chapter leader Tyler WIlliams mobilized SSDP volunteers to drive people home safely. Students could call the number, and drivers would pick students up anywhere around campus and get them where they were going, for just $2 to cover gas!
        2. Sometimes the campus will already have its own school-led program, like Dickinson Safety Shuttle or Northwestern Safe Ride. However, there are always opportunities for improvement, whether it’s extending hours or possible pick-up / drop-off locations.
  • Start a Group Walk program. Group Walks are a great way to encourage people to watch out for one another and get home safely. Check out Dickinson Campus Escort for a model example of this program.
  • Start a party monitor program. UC Santa Barbara’s Life of the Party Peers program is a student run organization that promotes safe partying and drinking. Their main page provides harm reduction tips based on whether you are a Partygoer, a Partythrower, going downtown or need help in case of an emergency. Stanford’s Party Pros  also work with campus individual’s to hold responsible party planning and alcohol risk management.



Local Speakers and Organizations

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Mid-Atlantic Region

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Southwest Region

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