By Mary Shaw, with Mark Shaw and Tim Brown

Is harm reduction really reducing harm and saving lives?

What are the benefits of the harm reduction programs where needles are exchanged and free Narcan is distributed? 

Tim Brown of His Steps Ministries and Dr. Mark E. Shaw took some time to discuss a recent article on Harm Reduction found in The Enquirer at by Terry DeMio.

The Problem

Used needles scattered over communities where heroin use is running rampant, increases in HBV and HIV infections, accidental overdoses, deaths, and a strained emergency response system give rise to great concern. What can be done? What should be done? 

As neighborhood committees and city councils, state legislators and Congress, and even the Executive branch scramble for solutions, many wonder what is the cause of the drug use problem that has hit just about every community whether large or small?

Various answers and community action programs have been trying to address these issues for many decades now. Thousands and sometimes millions of dollars being spent toward trying to bring a compassionate and effective solution. The goal – save lives. 

The Pain

People are dying. It’s very, very sad. At The Addiction Connection, we are heartbroken for the lost and dying people suffering in addiction. Mark and Tim and everyone on TAC’s team have vast experience counseling both the addicted and their families. They’ve looked into their broken-hearted eyes and shed tears for them and with them. The hard, heart-wrenching work sometimes makes the failure rate difficult to bear.

But what about harm reduction programs?

Going out to the streets, where the hurting people are, safely picking up and disposing of dirty syringes from sidewalks and park benches, giving out free gloves, clean syringes, alcohol cleansing wipes, Narcan® doses, and postcards that instruct “never use alone…” seems like compassionate work. But is it? What about opening up safe using locations that invite people to use their own drugs in the presence of others? That way, as the thinking goes, if they do overdose, someone is there to revive them on the spot.

Tim Brown is often asked: “Why would these harm reduction models of addiction recovery try to help in this way?”

“Certainly, that nurse [who is helping people with harm reduction on the street] has a heart for helping people or he wouldn’t have done what he did…” referring to the nurse in The Enquirer article who sought out a man with a festering wound to make sure he had received care. “They are trying to help people get sober. They are trying to help.”

Tim has words of wisdom for biblical counselors who may have strong opinions on the secularists’ attempt to help. He warns us:

“We’ve got to be careful that we are not judging the genuineness of somebody’s heart that really is trying to help [people]. I don’t doubt that… Lots and lots of counselors that are in the secular realm of recovery … are trying to help people. The problem is their model according to God is flawed. According to man it’s a good model but … The best, without the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that somebody can offer is a sober person for the remainder of their life here. But then, they are going to enter an eternity without any hope whatsoever.”

“They don’t need to be in a recovery process their whole life; they need to be in a transformation process,” Tim adds. That’s where the real hope for lasting change is.

The Value of Human Life

At The Addiction Connection, we are glad when someone safely gets access to Narcan® or when someone avoids a risky use of a used needle. 

We value human life. 

But we are not content with the goal being just sobriety. And avoiding death from a drug overdose is a good thing for sure, but we don’t stop there. There is even more at stake. An eternity without forgiveness from Jesus—an eternity of eternal felt torment from the Living God who created us all in His image is at stake. He loves each of us–and He cares for those struggling with and suffering from the results of an addiction.

So Tim and Mark both exhort biblical counselors not to criticize someone’s attempt to reach people on the street who are stuck in their suffering from addictive lifestyles. “It’s the best they can do,” Dr. Shaw adds. Tim and Mark are calling attention to the heart of the problem…not just the outward behavior, which can only be solved by the One who loves us the best – His name is Jesus.

What is Wrong with Harm Reduction Programs?

Tim continues the conversation adding that an eternity of torment forever, body and soul… with the dangerous drugs that are on the streets today, this is a very real, very urgent concern.

We, as addictions biblical counselors, have the truth of what God says addiction really is, and so we can offer more. Transformation now and ongoing transformation for the remainder of their lives.

We agree that there are hurting addicts across our country, but our model is foundationally different. We value each and every life out there on this earth and we want them to live so we can share hope with them… the hope of forgiveness through the Good News that Jesus has come, has died, and has risen from the grave.

Tim’s compares handing a clean syringe to somebody to giving them a ticking time bomb. IV drug users are taking a risk because they have no way of knowing what is in the drug, how strong it is, nor which formulation is correct based on their own body weight, etc. 

“The risk involved in handing someone a clean syringe… and I hate to say it, but it is like the Russian roulette,” he says. 

What if that syringe you gave them is the one they overdosed with and then died? 

And even worse, what if they died without the forgiveness of Jesus Christ? And how would you face that family who lost their loved one because you gave them a clean syringe?

Which is more compassionate to say: “Here’s a needle to cope with your habit” or “Here’s the Gospel”?

Scripture Brings Hope

Beginning with Scripture instead of humankind’s best ideas… we read the following hopeful verses:

I Corinthians 6:9-11 “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (ESV) [1]

What are the flaws of the harm reduction methods and their goal of “safety”?

If an addicted person gets a clean needle to avoid disease transmission, and a few doses of Narcan to prevent overdose at one of these “compassionate” sites, what happens next? They do build a relationship with them as they repeat visits. Those who run these programs hope to eventually be there when the addicted person does decide to enter treatment, so it seems like an okay plan of action at first glance. 

“It just seems like the world has given up hope when they start programs like this,” Mark says. It’s like they just say, ‘well they are going to use no matter what so let’s just help them’ and if we are building a relationship with them and are around them, maybe they will ask us for help at some point.’ 

Their heart is in the right place. The sad thing is the church by and large had mostly given up hope, too, but The Addiction Connection is starting to see that change. There are addictions programs both residential and non-residential that we are hearing about popping up all over the place with a genuinely biblical approach to helping people be transformed by Jesus Christ, the Gospel and the truth of the Word of God applied by the power of the Holy Spirit. People are calling The Addiction Connection and receiving training and commissioning in addictions biblical counseling. It’s great to see the message get out there that God has the most compassionate answer for addiction.

But the problem remains: the person who receives free, clean syringes could unknowingly receive a batch of heroin with fentanyl in it and overdose and die. Sometimes there is not enough Narcan® in these nasal doses to bring someone back in time! The problem has not been solved but actually been worsened. 

Harm reduction might be doing harm. 

Not all biblical counseling sessions end in success either. It’s a tough problem. But we are not convinced that harm reduction is reducing harm to persons using drugs.

Tim points out that the wisdom of the Word of God tells us in Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (ESV) [2]

And then just a couple of chapters later we are told once again in Proverbs 16:25: “There is a way which seems right to a man but its end is the way to death.” (ESV) [3]

We needed to hear this twice. It’s important that we listen.

“We have the best news that there is. The most compassionate thing we can do and the most non-judgmental thing we can do is proclaim the Gospel.” -Tim Brown

God Never Stigmatizes Sin

No matter what the sin is, there is no stigma in God’s system because God takes away the sin and cleans the slate for us… not ourselves! 

God doesn’t cover up a stigma by trying to normalize it, medicalize it, or make you feel better about your sin choices that are hurting you deeply. He wants to wipe the slate clean for you through the atonement of Jesus Christ. He wants it to be past tense for you according to 1 Corinthians 6:11 where God uses a verb intentionally to teach us.

Lou Priolo is the biblical counselor trainer who first taught basics of biblical counseling to both Tim and Mark when they took biblical counseling training courses from Lou over two decades ago. 

With such a profound impact on his life, Tim says he remembers it like it was 3 minutes ago!

Tim shares:

“Such were some of you..” Lou said, and then he stopped and asked the class whether that word was past or present tense. It’s past tense of course the class answered. Lou continued to teach…There were people in the church of Corinth who had those sins in their life at one point in time and they were guilty and condemned to hell at some point in their life but because of the sanctification and the justification that occurred when someone placed their faith in Jesus Christ and his shed blood for forgiveness of their sins. They were free.”

“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (verse 11)

“I started my ministry on that verse – ‘such were some of you’! Tim exclaims. “There is so much freedom in that!”

Identity in Christ: The Best Exchange Program

Instead of exchanging apparatuses we can exchange our identities in Christ! That’s the great exchange!

“There are genuine, caring people out there who want to help but they have a flawed model,” Tim explains.

Imagine if we could have an exchange program where we say “bring us your needles and we will present you the Gospel”—-something that will actually set you free.


Tim Brown is a Commissioned Addictions Biblical Counselor with The Addiction Connection and serves on TAC’s Board. He founded His Steps Ministries which is listed on The Addiction Connection’s website of recommended programs and ministries to people struggling with addiction.

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[1] “Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.