If Supply-Oriented Drug Policy Is Broken, Can Harm Reduction Help Fix It?

Melding Disciplines and Methods to Advance International Drug-Control Policy

Published In: International Journal of Drug Policy, v. 23, no. 1, Jan. 2012, Commentary, p. 6-15

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2012

by Victoria A. Greenfield, Letizia Paoli

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Critics of the international drug-control regime contend that supply-oriented policy interventions are not just ineffective, but, in focusing almost exclusively on supply reduction, they also produce unintended adverse consequences. Evidence from the world heroin market supports their claims. The balance of the effects of policy is yet unknown, but the prospect of adverse consequences underlies a central paradox of contemporary supply-oriented policy. In this paper, we evaluate whether harm reduction, a subject of intense debate in the demand-oriented drug-policy community, can provide a unifying foundation for supply-oriented drug policy and speak more directly to policy goals. Our analysis rests on an extensive review of the literature on harm reduction and draws insight from other policy communities' disciplines and methods. First, we explore the paradoxes of supply-oriented policy that initially motivated our interest in harm reduction; second, we consider the conceptual and technical challenges that have contributed to the debate on harm reduction and assess their relevance to a supply-oriented application; third, we examine responses to those challenges, i.e., various tools (taxonomies, models, and measurement strategies), that can be used to identify, categorize, and assess harms. Despite substantial conceptual and technical challenges, we find that harm reduction can provide a basis for assessing the net consequences of supply-oriented drug policy, choosing more rigorously amongst policy options, and identifying new options. In addition, we outline a practical path forward for assessing harms and policy options. On the basis of our analysis, we suggest pursuing a harm-based approach and making a clearer distinction between supply-oriented and supply-reduction policy.

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