Federal Government Announces First-Ever Harm Reduction Grants

The end of last year marked the first-ever announcement of federal grants for harm reduction — $30 million to be spent on programs which distribute naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and syringe services. No illegal services – such as “overdose prevention sites,” “safe injection sites,” or any similar sites which allow people to bring in illegal drugs and inject them there – will be allowed funding from these grants.

The harm reduction summit held in late December by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for the first time brought together drug users – or their representatives – and treatment. The meeting was not all friendly, with treatment representatives feeling attacked. Indeed, many in the harm reduction community publicly blame treatment – including opioid treatment programs dispensing methadone – with being too restrictive (and OTPs themselves would like restrictions lifted) or, on the far fringe, not encouraging drug use as a positive lifestyle. So yes, we would have loved to have been there, but it was not open to the press.

The main reason for the meeting, according to the ONDCP, was “bringing longtime advocates and people who’ve worked in the harm-reduction system together more collectively nationally, and also to have them explain to folks in the federal government who don’t understand what harm reduction is and who aren’t very comfortable with it.” We hope that happened, and in the future, that it continues to happen, because drug users, like people with any medical condition, have good reason to work together with treatment, making it more equitable and fair, but no reason to disparage it.

Stay tuned as SAMHSA and the ONDCP move forward on this difficult balancing act.

The grants, it is hoped, will go to those harm reduction groups which have been doing the work on a volunteer, grassroots basis with no funding for years, and who truly know their clients. As the opioid overdose epidemic continues unabated, it is hoped that treatment can serve those people who want it, with no barriers to entry, but with the high standards Americans expect from their health care. And in fact, OTPs and harm reduction have a long history of working together.

For the harm reduction grant announcement, see https://www.samhsa.gov/grants/grant-announcements/sp-22-001

For the ONDCP report on the harm reduction summit, see https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/briefing-room/2021/12/16/readout-white-house-hhs-host-national-harm-reduction-summit/

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