An Argument for Harm Reduction to Address Collegiate Drinking

HarmReduction (HR) and its utility as an approach to address substance use isnothing if not controversial. Although most are aware of HR as regards Methadone maintenance or Needle Exchange, but there is more tothis behavioral and public policy objective than these two strategies.

Inbrief, HR is about considering ways to engage individuals committed to a particularpattern of behavior so as to reduce the likelihood of their doing harm to themselves and/orthe community in which they reside and operate.  For a brief overview of HR as it applies tocollegiate drinking, visit this article that you may find useful as regardsjustifying HR techniques and strategies when looking to approach a high-riskcommunity (an indicated population) in a pre-contemplative (not ready) stageof readiness to change.  Visit scrolldown to, Is Harm Reduction a Viable Policy forAmerican Collegiate Drinking?

In brief, our biggest challenge in addressing the concerns relatedto HR is that arguments against such policies tend to be grounded in moral and/orlegal principles while the rationale for HR is steeped in public health andquality of life issues.  Until and unless both sides of the HR debate canfind a common ground where they can talk about the issue in neutral terms,there will always be more heat than light generated by this debate.

It seems to me that our challenge is to level the proverbial playingfield.  Those advocating HR as one strategy in a comprehensive plan toaddress collegiate drinking will never trump the moral and legal rhetoric directedagainst HR with a logic-based appeal that addresses the quality of life ofthose who choose to use.  You and I can likely appreciate this logic and asthe result embrace it, but for those who see drug use as “illegal” and those whouse drugs as “criminals”—or its first cousin, “if drugs are bad then those whouse them are bad people”—HR is tantamount to “giving in,” “permitting use,”“the first step to legalization,” and/or “pushing current non-users towardsuse.”

An alternative in this debate is to shift the focus for HRaway from the reduction of harm for the user and direct it instead onto thereduction of harm for the community in which the user uses.  In thecase of the Greeks, a high-risk community of drinkers on college and university campuses, for example, it is improving the quality of life for thecommunity in which the Greeks live (this is where programs like the Good Neighbor Project at Clarion Universityin Clarion, PA can be useful – see orreducing costs to the university related to violence and vandalism.  If acase can be made to lower high-risk Greek drinking, its related behaviors, and its negative impacton quality of life issues in general, especially if those quality of life issuesaffect student decisions to transfer before graduation, then one can argue forHR not so much to benefit to “miscreant drinkers,” but the individual“well-behaved student” in the general university community.

Put another way, if there are “indicated populations” that alreadymanifest indications of problems related to drinking on campus, then theuniversity community as a whole--and not just the errant consumers--is the most likely benefactor of the HR effortstargeting those communities.

What do you think?

Dr. Robert

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