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There’s More To Indiana Harm Reduction Than Syringes

By Kirk Markey

This is the first in a recurring series on the variety of services that the Indiana Recovery Alliance offers in the local community.

A Subject That Just Doesn’t Come to Mind

Our first instinct was to begin this blog with something like” ‘When people think of harm reduction, they usually associate it with distributing clean syringes and little more….’ Then, after detailing the common conceptions people hold about harm reduction, the plan was to get to work correcting and expanding upon them. Unfortunately, greater wisdom immediately prevailed, and we realized that generally speaking, people simply don’t think about harm reduction. Of course, this required a slight change in strategy, and we’ve decided to begin in the following way instead.

There is a painfully small segment of our population who have some idea about the concept of harm reduction. This isn’t a happy thing. It’s simply the truth. You see, the practice of harm reduction is, needless to say, connected to drug use. By extension, it’s also connected to the concept of the drug user. And it’s right here that the blind spot begins to appear. Or disappear, whatever. The bottom line is that when people think about drug use in their community, what usually comes to mind is the sinister figure of the lone drug user.

After that, everything pretty much shuts down. Opioid epidemic, chaotic drug use, and a drug user who makes their life choices in a cultural vacuum, and we’re done. And therein lies a big part of the problem, but that’s a topic for another day…..

This is Not an Apology

Okay, now we’re ready. We’ve made the disclaimer that people just don’t think about harm reduction, and now we can tell you all the stuff we do that doesn’t involve distributing clean syringes. Hopefully, you’re ready too, because here goes.

Few people connect the concept of harm reduction to the phenomenon of drug use or to the opioid epidemic that’s been ravaging our country for the past several years. For those few that do think about drug use in terms of harm reduction practices, they usually associate it only the distribution of clean syringes. This is an understandable misconception, but there’s a whole lot more to The Indiana Recovery Alliance than syringes. Here are just a few of the other services we render to the community.

But no. We’re still not quite there yet. We’re not quite ready to discuss all the non-syringe services that are involved in harm reduction just yet. Why? Because if we discuss these services in the terms that we’ve just established, our logic would go something like this. ‘Yes, The Indiana Recovery Alliance distributes clean syringes to drug users at no cost to them or the taxpaying public, but we also…..’ The problem is in the word ‘but.’ If we say ‘we distribute clean syringes, but….,’ then it seems that we’re doing this horrible thing and trying to justify it. But that’s not the case at all.

This blog is not an apology. As part of our harm reduction practices, The Indiana Recovery Alliance distributes clean syringes to the members of our community who use intravenous drugs. We’re more than willing to explain why, but this isn’t the place for that. We distribute clean syringes to the community and we don’t apologize for it.

Rhetoric Matters to Indiana Recovery

It goes without saying that the way we talk about drug use reflects how we conceive of it. But another, more profound truth isn’t quite so obvious: the way we talk about drug use also molds our conceptions of it. Rhetoric has causal power. In other words, the way we talk about phenomena like drug use or harm reduction makes things happen in the world. Or, in the case of effective drug policy, keeps things from happening.

So, if we would have started this blog with anything akin to ‘yeah, we give out syringes, but we do some helpful stuff too….,’ we would have participated in two things that we actually reject completely. First, presenting our practice of distributing clean syringes in apologetic terms would contribute to the destructive stigma that has long been attached to the members of our community who use drugs. Second, this presentation would have suggested that we’re somehow ashamed of our practice of distributing clean syringes.

We’re not. We’re not ashamed of distributing clean syringes to drug users in our community. Nor will we employ rhetoric that suggests that we are. Most importantly, we will not contribute to misconceptions that have, quite literally, been killing people and spreading infectious diseases for over a century.

Now we’re ready to introduce the topic of this blog, though in slightly different terms than we thought. Here goes. The distribution of clean syringes is a central part of the IRA’s harm reduction practices. You’re welcome for that, but we do a lot of other helpful things too. We’ll discuss exactly what these other things are in our next post, but you can rest assured that they will not be presented in the terms of an apology.

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