Honest conversation about drug use is hard to find. Even as our political climate shifts on issues such as marijuana legalization or the promising research on 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) assisted treatment for people living with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug use remains a taboo. Years of stigma and shame have not only forced people who use drugs into the shadows but have also warped the very programs supposedly designed to help them. The Integrative Harm Reduction Psychotherapy training, led by Andrew Tatarsky and Jenifer Talley, was a breath of fresh air in a field too often consumed by fear mongering and the outdated abstinence-only mindset. The training, which spanned the course of three days, provided valuable insight and education on how we can begin exploring drug use through a harm reduction model of compassionate pragmatism.
While the training’s focus varied day to day, the connective tissue between remained the same: re-humanizing both drugs and the people who use them. This means leaving behind the biological and spiritual disease model of addiction as the sole answer to people struggling with substance use disorders, opening conversations about moderation and safer use. A particular highlight was when we began exploring the idea of how the use of an illicit substance is often seen as the problem, while it could potentially be what someone living with trauma needs in order to function in the world forced upon them. The discussion was open and fruitful, one that cannot be found in the world of “abstinence only,” thanks to frequent assumptions made about drug use always being the problem that needs to be fixed. It was a room where drug use is accepted as a reality rather than a dirty thing to cover up and run from.
An incredible strength of the three-day experience was how it brought together people from all over the professional spectrum to be a part of the growing harm reduction community. I met people working in private practice, peer workers looking to grow outreach programs, social workers from hospitals, and syringe exchange volunteers. Everyone’s expertise and knowledge was unique, allowing for a variety of perspectives that explored each’s own encounter with substance use, whether personal or professional. By the second or third day, many felt comfortable sharing their own stories of drug use and their involvement with the criminal justice system and failed abstinence-only “recovery” programs. Andrew Tatarsky himself shared his now well-known origin story of his time as a young man at an inpatient program that ended up doing far more damage than drug use ever did.
Personally, the most helpful tools I learned in this three-day training came on the last day, when Andrew and the staff at Center for Optimal Living showed examples of harm reduction psychotherapy and asked us to role-play with other members of the group. To allow insight on the therapeutic techniques they’ve found success in was an incredible experience, one which I took from the training and promptly began to utilize with my own clients, with overwhelmingly positive results. As someone who has worked in harm reduction for a number of years and passionately believed in it for all of my life, I was amazed by how much I was able to learn—and how much more there is for me to learn. Anyone who takes part in this three-day training is sure to find themselves excited to be part of our social revolution of harm reduction.
-Garrett Reuscher, Guest Blogger
Garrett Reuscher is a Harm Reduction Counselor and drug policy reformist working in New York City. He is a strong proponent for ending the failed war on drugs and believes in a compassionate and realistic approach to personal use. Garrett also coordinates an opioid overdose prevention program and his previous work includes leading the youth vote to legalize marijuana in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on twitter @GarrettReuscher.