The Third Way

Harm-reduction advocates meet this month to change the way we deal with addiction.

Illustration: iStock, Jen Tadaki Catanzariti

Are drug addicts criminals, freely choosing antisocial behavior for which they must be jailed? Or are they victims of a disease, helpless to refuse the next drink, the next hit of meth? Strange as it may seem, we’ve treated addicts as both for years, with no success in eliminating the problems. In fact, some reformers have come to see these all-or-nothing approaches to addiction as destructive in their own right and advocate instead for what they call harm reduction.

Proponents of this seldom-discussed, alternative way of dealing with social problems will meet locally at the Homegrown Harm Reduction Conference on Nov. 6 at Honolulu Community College. Sessions focus on training professionals who work with poverty, domestic violence and drug-abuse issues within our community.

“It’s a holistic approach,” says Pamela Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Forum and part of the conference planning committee. “You try to look at the whole person, and try not to judge them or stereotype them based on one aspect of their life.”

The concept of harm reduction was born in the 1990s in conjunction with HIV-prevention campaigns. Lichty mentions needle-exchange programs as prime examples. Drug users were encouraged to swap their used needles for sterile ones, to prevent the spread of HIV. That type of program couldn’t stop the spread of HIV through sexual transmission, nor did it help the drug users stop using drugs, but it at least controlled the disease from being transmitted through dirty needles.

“I am impressed by the history of harm reduction in Hawaii,” says Renee Schuetter, executive director of the PATH Clinic. Harm-reduction techniques, she says, are “an expression of aloha, of compassion.”

“This is different from the usual practice of condemning the behavior, which leads to isolation of individuals who are struggling, which increases the harmful effects of the behavior,” says Schuetter.

Schuetter will discuss the success and implementation of harm reduction tactics at the PATH Clinic, an organization that helps pregnant women with substance-abuse problems. The clinic provides medical care and offers what they call “substance abuse pre-treatment.”

“It is designed to eliminate the barriers that keep pregnant women with addictions from receiving prenatal care,” says Schuetter.

It has been about two years since Honolulu’s last harm-reduction conference, and since harm reduction is an idea, rather than an organization, a conference isn’t held every year. Lichty notes that there’s no office or single organization that puts this event together on a regular basis; it’s more of a collaboration.

The conference is open to the public. Nov. 6, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Registration is $40 at the door, and includes lunch. For more information, call 853-3280 or e-mail