Using Harm Reduction Models to Battle the Opioid Crisis

Jeff Baer, center, stands with Chief Keough (right) and another police officer at Lodi Police Department. (Photo: ideastream)
Jeff Baer, center, stands with Chief Keough (right) and another police officer at Lodi Police Department. (Photo: ideastream)
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This outreach worker for a needle exchange program in Cleveland is gathering basic information from a drug user before handing him new needles in exchange for his used ones. The program aims to reduce HIV or Hepatitis B and C infections that can occur when heroin addicts share needles.

The program is one example of what’s known as a harm reduction model, which emphasizes treating addiction with compassion rather than punishment, according to Professor Mark Singer of Case Western Reserve University. 

"The harm reduction model essentially is a model that says that it’s important for individuals to not harm themselves, not harm others, and certainly not harm the community and society in general," said Singer. "So the harm reduction approach is very humane and person-centered to help them with their problems rather than punish them with their problems."

40 minutes away from Cleveland is the village of Lodi, where the local police department offers another form of harm reduction.

Lodi police officers adhere to a program designed to get addicts help in an effort to prevent them from returning to jail repeatedly… or from overdosing.

Keeping an addict in jail, which costs $99 per day, is actually more expensive than helping them get treatment, says Keith Keough, Chief of Lodi Police. He adds the devastating cycle of addiction and jail spurred him to embrace the harm reduction model.

"It was kind of like a revolving door, they’d go to jail for a day or two, they’d get out, they’d overdose again," said Keough. "Or they’d actually overdose and die, so it was kind of frustrating for me as a police officer to see there was a problem that was not being addressed properly."

Another aspect of the program is connecting addicts who do end up in jail to get treatment immediately upon release. For recovering heroin addict Jeff Baer, it was a turning point.

"I’ve been locked up several times due to my addiction... But then I got to go to treatment when I got out," said Baer. "That’s where I started to recover. Not sitting in jail, dwelling, looking at the walls 23 hours a day… that didn’t help my recovery. My recovery came once I got out and entered treatment."

Other cities across Ohio, as well as several across the country, including Seattle and Gloucestor, Massachusetts, have adopted similar models. And in Europe, several countries — including Portugal and the Netherlands — have embraced harm reduction models on a national scale, providing addicts with treatment, housing, and social services rather than criminal records. Research has shown that the harm reduction model in these countries have significantly reduced heroin rates and overdose deaths.

For Jeff Baer, the Lodi Police program provided him with the guidance he needed to start his recovery. Today, he’s 8 months clean.

"I have two jobs, I’m a father, I’m engaged, I’m looking to buy a new home," Baer said. "Complete 180 in 8 months."

Whether they are needle exchange programs or keeping addicts out of jail by assisting in recovery, harm reduction models are gaining favor among both experts and law enforcement officials in confronting the current opioid crisis.

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