Harm reduction services, which typically provide overdose education and prevention with distribution of naloxone and other supplies related to safer drug use, help reduce opioid-related overdose and infectious disease transmission. However, structural stigma and the ongoing criminalization of drug use have limited the expansion of harm reduction services into many non-urban communities in the United States that have been increasingly affected by the health consequences of opioid and polysubstance use.
We conducted qualitative interviews with 22 professionals working with people who use drugs in cities and towns across Rhode Island and Massachusetts to understand challenges and strategies for engaging communities in accepting harm reduction perspectives and services.
Our thematic analysis identified several interrelated challenges to implementing harm reduction services in non-urban communities, including: (1) limited understandings of harm reduction practice and preferential focus on substance use treatment and primary prevention, (2) community-level stigma against people who use drugs as well as the agencies supporting them, (3) data reporting and aggregating leading to inaccurate perceptions about local patterns of substance use and related health consequences, and (4) a “prosecutorial mindset” against drug use and harm reduction. From key informants’ narratives, we also identified specific strategies that communities could use to address these challenges, including: (1) identifying local champions to advocate for harm reduction strategies, (2) proactively educating communities about harm reduction approaches before they are implemented, (3) improving the visibility of harm reduction services within communities, and (4) obtaining “buy-in” from a wide range of local stakeholders including law enforcement and local government.
These findings carry important implications for expanding harm reduction services, including syringe service programs and safe injection sites, into non-urban communities that have a demonstrated need for evidence-based interventions to reduce drug-related overdose and infectious disease transmission.
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