By Al Woods
Whether seeking support for substance misuse or medical help during the middle of a trip, harm reduction principles can be applied to psychedelic drug use — and law enforcement is learning how to incorporate new approaches for navigating their encounters with people using psychedelic drugs.
Online community Psychable aims at providing information and free resources to help reduce the risk of harm. Their interactive directory combined with hundreds of free articles and videos and a community forum is a first of its kind in the psychedelic industry.
What Is Harm Reduction?
“No matter what type of psychoactive drugs are involved, harm reduction strategies can be applied to help keep people safe,” explains Matt Zemon, Psychable’s Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder. “People who practice harm reduction support safer drug use through policy advocacy, direct care work like needle exchange, peer counseling, distributing testing kits, and even offering nutritional guidance.”
Matt Zemon, Psychable Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder
Harm reduction is both a practice and a philosophy. Rather than holding unrealistic expectations for a “drug-free” or abstinence-only approach, harm reduction recognizes the importance of meeting people where they are and starts the conversation there — with compassion, dignity, and education.
Most importantly, harm reduction works. In Portugal, where drug possession and use was decriminalized in 2001, harm reduction principles have led to a decrease in overdose and substance misuse, as well as a marked reduction in cost from incarceration.
While policy reform played a significant role in lowering incarceration rates, it was the reduction in the social stigma of drug use that proved most helpful for people experiencing substance dependencies. In fact, as a result of removing much of the stigma associated with drug use, Portugal saw an increase in the number of people who sought help for recovery from substance use disorders.
Which begs the question: why exactly do we incarcerate people who use drugs? It also begs a follow-up question: what might our nation look like when we treat drug use as a matter of public health?
What is Psychedelic Harm Reduction?
According to the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), the drug war fails to prevent drug use, and a public health approach is called for instead. However, law enforcement personnel are not necessarily trained to treat people who are experiencing psychedelic mind states and might not be best equipped to respond to a call involving someone who has been using psychedelics. Nor should they be.
A better person to respond to the emergency call might instead be a qualified and experienced harm reduction expert, social worker, or mental health professional. The skills needed to help someone through a temporary altered state safely are similar to counseling and therapy and are sometimes as simple as sitting with someone and letting them know they are safe and the situation is not permanent. Unless a person is a threat to others or experiencing a medical emergency, most law enforcement personnel are best reserved for tasks directly related to their training.
Drug-testing is another critical piece of psychedelic harm reduction, as are over-the-counter medications like naloxone that can reverse an opiate overdose.
“So long as prohibition exists, there is a risk for illicitly produced drugs to contain adulterants that may result in accidental overdose or harm,” says Jemie Sae Koo, Psychable CEO and Co-Founder. “But these days, simple tests can be used to verify safety and substance, ultimately preventing emergency calls in the first place. Additionally, psychedelic support phone lines like Fireside Project and apps like Never Use Alone are rolling out to help address existing gaps in harm reduction.”
Jemie Sae Koo, Psychable CEO and Co-Founder
What Does Psychedelic Harm Reduction Look Like for Law Enforcement Personnel?
As drug policies evolve, we may see trained harm reduction experts riding along with law enforcement personnel to engage with people directly. Or, we might see an expansion of existing harm reduction organizations’ efforts. Law enforcement can be trained in basic psychedelic harm reduction and arguably should be (check out this course for an introduction), but no amount of basic training could replace the expertise of people who make psychedelic harm reduction their profession.
What will undoubtedly help everyone who uses psychedelics is access to education and information about psychedelic drugs, their potential risks and effects, and the impacts they can have on the mind and body. From this more sensible approach, where drug use is neither condemned nor condoned, people are empowered to make their own decisions as safely and responsibly as possible.
If people end up using psychedelics in an unsafe way, and the emergency does not involve violence or pose a threat to others, there are additional laws in place to address that behavior. But when it comes to approaching psychedelic harm reduction from a public health perspective, so long as the use is safe and not occurring in a public place, there is no reason for law enforcement to ever interact with people who use psychedelics. Rather, harm reduction experts would be better qualified to help.