How Can You Support Harm Reduction?


Kristen Kidd Donovan with her host family during her Peace Corps service in Zimbabwe.


Last week we shared an episode of our Why Science podcast featuring Kristen Kidd Donovan. This blog post is a follow up to her discussion of service in the Peace Corps, building a career in public health and the importance of harm reduction policies.

Donovan got her start with harm reduction as a Peace Corps volunteer in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. Living in a village where roughly 1/3 of adults were infected with HIV, applying harm reduction practices to sex education was a natural fit. This experience led her to pursue a Master of Public Health degree at University of Iowa. During her studies, she was an HIV outreach worker at the local health department in Iowa City.

Donovan currently serves as VCU’s Assistant Director for Substance Education and Recovery Support, working to reduce alcohol and drug based harm on campus. She is also a volunteer facilitator for SMART Recovery in Richmond.

If you polled a room filled with college students, parents, police officers, health care professionals, teachers, politicians, and clergy, and asked everyone who supported a reduction in harm associated with drugs to stand, who would stay in their seat?

But ask the same group if they support objective, fact based drug education that acknowledges that some ways of using drugs, both legal and illicit, are safer than others, some may take their seat.

And ask them if they support heroin users’ access to clean needles and injecting supplies, or access to heroin by prescription, and there may be only a few left standing.

Harm reduction focuses on ways to reduce negative consequences associated with drug use including personal and systemic strategies. But because of the politicized nature of drug use and healthcare for drug users, it also intersects with social justice and criminal reform movements.

At their heart, harm reduction principles are respectful, compassionate, and broadly applicable. Let’s walk through a simple example that most anyone can relate to.

Let’s say you have a headache. What do you do? Perhaps you start with a glass of water and a nap. But if you need to power through, you’ll probably head to the medicine cabinet. Let’s say all you find there is aspirin.

Here’s a simple drug harm reduction rubric you can apply to the decision whether or not to take aspirin:

What drug am I considering using? Aspirin.

What positive effects do I hope to gain from taking this drug? Headache relief.

Can this drug provide the effects I’m seeking? That’s what it says on the label, so yes.

Are there any potential negative effects from this drug? Yes, it’s hard on the stomach, it thins the blood.

Are there safer ways to get the positive effects I’m seeking? Maybe, but not on hand.

Are you willing to accept the potential negative effects? Yes.

What can you do to minimize the potential negative effects? Take it with food, only take it as needed, avoid taking more than recommended.

What’s the smallest dose that will give you the effects you desire? One aspirin has done it in the past.

This same rubric can be applied to any drug, whether it’s over the counter, prescription, or illicit. It is also a great tool to use in reference to alcohol, which is the most commonly used recreational drug on college campuses.

The simple process of considering what you hope to get from consuming alcohol and what you hope to avoid can be a powerful exercise.

Over the years, Students for Sensible Drug Policy at VCU have done great work promoting harm reduction on campus by hosting fact-based drug education lectures titled Just Say Know.

The national organization has recently added harm reduction education training and ready-to-use materials and facilitator notes to their website.  If you are interested in bringing lectures like this to VCU, connect with SSDP here on campus, or contact me.

If you’d like more information about your alcohol or other drug use, The Well has a free, anonymous online assessment that provides personalized feedback. If you would like to discuss your feedback, you can contact me at