Reducing the risk

There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It’s important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

What is harm reduction?

Harm reduction refers to public health measures designed to reduce the negative individual or social effects associated with drug use.1

According to the International Harm Reduction Association, it’s defined as “policies, programmes and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable or unwilling to stop. The defining features are the focus on the prevention of harm, rather than the prevention of drug use itself, and the focus on people who continue to use drugs.”2

It includes needle and syringe programs, opioid substitution therapy, medically supervised injecting spaces, decriminalisation of personal use and drug checking (pill testing) services.3-6

The origins of harm reduction lie in the HIV epidemic of the 1980s,7,8 when healthcare workers tried to minimise the risk of HIV transmission by providing unused syringes to people who injected drugs.

  1. Single E. Defining harm reduction. 1995. p. 287.
  2. Harm Reduction Australia. What is Harm Reduction? c2019
  3. Brunt T. Drug checking as a harm reduction tool for recreational drug users: opportunities and challenges. 2017.
  4. Harm Reduction Victoria. Buperenorphine naloxone suboxone 2016
  5. Uniting. History of the uniting medically supervised injecting centre: a story of harm minimisation c2019
  6. World Health Organization. Harm Reduction: Regional Office for Europe; 2019
  7. Inciardi JA, Harrison LD. Harm Reduction: National and International Perspectives: SAGE Publications; 1999.
  8. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Harm reduction: evidence, impacts and challenges. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union; 2010.


Alcohol, like any other drug, can be harmful. In fact, alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive drug in Australia and one of the most harmful.



The non-prescribed use of pharmaceuticals – in particular, opioids, including over-the-counter codeine, and benzodiazepines – is increasing.


Polydrug use

Polydrug use is defined as the use of more than one drug or type of drug by an individual —consumed at the same time or sequentially.


How long do drugs stay in your system?

The effects of every psychoactive drug – whether legal or illegal – last for different lengths of time.



Withdrawal is also known as detoxification or detox. It’s when you cut out, or cut back, on using alcohol or other drugs.



Recovering from a dependence on alcohol or another drug is a process that can take time. A relapse (or multiple relapses) is one part of the recovery process from alcohol and other drug dependence, and can often be a feature of the recovery.


Responding to someone who is upset or aggressive

While the majority of people who have issues related to alcohol and other drugs (AOD) will never become aggressive, some do.


Staying safe at events

The principles of harm reduction accept that no matter the messaging around the risks of substance use, there will always be people who take or experiment with substances.


Seeking help

Alcohol and other drug treatment services aim to assist people with problems relating to their drug use.


Supervised injecting facilities

Supervised injecting facilities (SIFs) are dedicated spaces where illicit drugs can be used under the watchful eye of health care professionals (particularly nurses), social workers or other trained workers or volunteers.


Community approaches

Preventing and minimising the harms caused by alcohol and other drugs is a community issue.


Alcohol and other drugs and mental health

This Alcohol and Other Drugs and Mental Health section provides an overview of the relationship between alcohol and other drugs and mental health problems, highlighting the need for integrated prevention, early intervention, treatment, and management of these issues.