Harm reduction through a social justice lens

Int J Drug Policy. 2008 Feb;19(1):4-10. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2007.11.005. Epub 2008 Jan 15.


Background: People who are street involved such as those experiencing homelessness and drug use face multiple inequities in health and access to health care. Morbidity and mortality are significantly increased among those who are street involved. Incorporation of a harm reduction philosophy in health care has the potential to shift the moral context of health care delivery and enhance access to health care services. However, harm reduction with a primary focus on reducing the harms of drug use fails focus on the harms associated with the context of drug use such as homelessness, violence and poverty.

Methods: Ethical analysis of the underlying values of harm reduction and examination of different conceptions of justice are discussed as a basis for action that addresses a broad range of harms associated with drug use.

Results: Theories of distributive justice that focus primarily on the distribution of material goods are limited as theoretical frameworks for addressing the root causes of harm associated with drug use. Social justice, reconceptualised and interpreted through a critical lens as described by Iris Marion Young, is presented as a promising alternative ethical framework.

Conclusions: A critical reinterpretation of social justice leads to insights that can illuminate structural inequities that contribute to the harms associated with the context of drug use. Such an approach provides promise as means of informing policy that aims to reduce a broad range of harms associated with drug use such as homelessness and poverty.

MeSH terms

  • Canada
  • Harm Reduction / ethics*
  • Health Policy
  • Health Services Accessibility / ethics*
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Ill-Housed Persons
  • Illicit Drugs
  • Poverty
  • Social Justice*
  • Social Problems / prevention & control*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / prevention & control*


  • Illicit Drugs