New dissertation on harm reduction measures in Finnish drug treatment

CEACG co-worker M.Soc.Sci. Riikka Perälä defends an etnographic study regards the harm reduction techniques applied in the Finnish drug treatment system in the 2000s.

The implementation of a drug policy based on the harm reduction ideology was started in Finland at the turn of the millennium, in addition to the restrictive drug policy implemented traditionally. The first health conseling service for injecting drug users, based on the harm reduction approach, was opened in the capital region in 1997. The start of the activities was a response to the social and health authorities’ concern in Finland in the 1990s, especially about the spread of bloodborne contagious diseases, HIV and hepatitis, related to injecting drug use. What was new and exceptional about the activities of the health counseling services was that they were particularly aimed at active drug users. In order to come and receive services there, the users did not have to commit themselves to stopping drug use, nor even to present any plans on those lines.

The results of the research show that health counseling services and the harm reduction policy implemented in them have become a significant part of the everyday lives of many problem drug users. At the services, the users receive help and support that is not available elsewhere in society. Both the employees and the visiting clients consider the work in the services more extensive than the agenda of the traditional harm reduction policy: for instance, elements of social and healthcare work play an essential part in the work done at the service, and the services also have a clear connection to the activities elsewhere in the service system. The services have also managed to create new kinds of ways to deal with the drug problem which the clients as well as the employees endorse. The harm reduction policy implemented in Finland is therefore a positive example of significantly increasing the social confidence of a population group that is socially quite excluded, and often even “demonized”, by working methods that listen to them and activate them. This should also be considered in future when planning similar interventions. However, the relationship of the health counseling activities to their environment has tensions, and the authorities, for example, often have a narrow perception of the activity as the exchange of syringes and needles. This, in turn, complicates the successful inclusion of the innovative procedures dominant in the policy into practices of the Finnish drug policy and treatment.

On a theoretical level, the research goes over a research discourse on the forms of social governance typical today. In this respect, the research enriches the recent analyses of governing by highlighting examples of the possibilites of opposition to governance as well as of the new forms of collective action and solidarity available in the prevalent ways of governance.

The defense act will take place on the 23rd of March in the Main Building of University of Helsinki, at the Assebly Hall at 12 pm.

Opponent: Docent Kerstin Stenius, University of Stockholm/THL,
Custos (chair): proffessor Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen.