Peer Support Values are Harm Reduction Values

Peer Support Values are Harm Reduction Values
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Harm Reduction is More Than You Think

If I told you that Peer Support Values and the philosophy of Harm Reduction overlap and intersect in almost every way, would that surprise you?

For too long, Harm Reduction has been stuck in the perceptual box of ‘doing less drugs, or doing drugs more safely.’ Although consuming drugs more safely—as the individual defines it—can be a small part of Harm Reduction, this misses the entire point.

Drug use safety is just one of many, many practical strategies promoted by harm reductionists for reducing the harms of potentially dangerous activities related to drugs, sex, self-injury, interacting with medical ‘professionals,’ and interacting with the police, courts, and jails.

These strategies spring directly from a philosophy that looks like it was cribbed from Peer Support Values.

So what are the underpinnings of the philosophy of Harm Reduction? They include:

Peer Driven Work

The voices of people who use or have used drugs are amplified and valued. Individuals with lived experience have long been at the center of most major Harm Reduction practices, policies, and innovations.

Human Rights/Social Justice

Harm Reductionists actively work to transform, undo, and heal from institutionalized, racialized drug policies. We recognize that the legality/illegality of certain drugs has little to do with safety, and everything to do with racism, capitalism, and social control. We promote the inherent value of all people.


We each have the right to control over our own bodies and lives. We each have the right to information so that we can make informed choices about what is best for us.


No human should be forced or coerced into treatments they don’t want or understand. Each person has autonomy, and the right to choose treatments, or no treatments, as they see fit.


Harm Reductionists recognize the deep, systemic harms created and perpetuated by labels and stigma. We work to use only person-centered language (e.g. “person who uses drugs”) and to highlight the dangers of judgment and labeling.


Both Harm Reductionists and Peers share the values of connection, empowerment, safety, and honoring of voices and choices. We acknowledge that things that cause harm can also help us in some way, and we assert that mandatory treatment is traumatic.

Alternative Approaches/Maximizing Options

One size does not fit all! Harm Reduction values promote innovative, ‘outside of the box’ thinking in finding ways to help ourselves. Harm Reduction also values low threshold services, pragmatism, and any positive change.

We recognize that any change that an individual defines as positive is a good thing, as it builds self-efficacy.

The overlap is stark and telling. Peer Support Values and the philosophy of Harm Reduction come from the same place.

It is critical to understand this before trying to understand the practices of harm reduction, because many of our practices may seem prima facie ‘extreme’ without the philosophical context.

Whether we are talking about safer sex supplies, syringe exchange, safer consumption spaces, safer drug use supplies, or safety strategies for people who do sex work, harm reductionists generate their practices from first-hand experience of what has worked for them.

And just as what works for you and your health today may not ‘make sense’ to someone else, if you can show empathy for the places that Harm Reductionists are coming from and the philosophy we rely upon, you can better understand our practices.

Peer Workers are already Harm Reductionists in so many ways. Moreover, although drug use, self-injury, or sex work may not be part of your story, recognizing that all people deserve respect and the freedom to choose what is right for them most certainly is.

Let’s expand our understanding of Harm Reduction beyond the over-simplified clichés, and learn to value the beautiful complexity of its sometimes unfamiliar strategies as coming from shared Peer Support Values.

Note: Some of the content of this article comes directly from presentations that I have given as a Harm Reductionist at Community Access. Those presentations are the work of many people before me, and I would like to recognize all of the Harm Reductionists and Peers at Community Access and elsewhere who have and continue to be my teachers.

Pullout: ‘Drug use safety is just one of many, many practical strategies promoted by harm reductionists for reducing the harms…related to drugs, sex, self-injury, interacting with medical ‘professionals,’ and interacting with the police, courts, and jails.’

by Jay Stevens

Jay Stevens

Jay Stevens

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