A Harm Reduction Perspective: An Interview with Kenneth Anderson, Founder of Harm Reduction Network (HAM)

HAMS stands for Harm Reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support. The program’s main focus is to meet clients where they are at to provide, “support for safer drinking, reduced drinking or quitting alcohol altogether.” Instead of a 12-step program, HAMS uses 17 elements to help people make positive changes in their lives. By using a harm reduction approach, HAMS attempts to reduce the negative effects of alcohol or drug use. Thus, as an alternative to abstinence-based programs, harm reduction supports anyone who wants to reduce the harm of high-risk behavior such as overdrinking.

Harm reduction believes that it is easier to encourage individuals to make small changes rather than large changes. Therefore, HAMS believes that it is easier to educate people about how to plan their drinking and drink safely instead of eliminating recreational alcohol use. Harm reduction has the potential to instill massive changes in society and this interview explains how HAMS aims to achieve this goal.

SWH: What is HAMS?

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Kenneth Anderson, Founder of HAM

Founder: HAMS is free of charge program that is committed to making small positive changes in individuals’ lives, which can amount to larger changes in society. HAMS uses evidence-based stages for their 17 elements by assisting people to reduce their high-risk behavior. In addition, since HAMS is committed to harm reduction, the program attempts to avoid the worst harms first, as safety is very important. HAMS also welcomes all individuals no matter how much they drink, which differs from other alcohol treatment programs.

SWH: What programs does HAMS offer?

Founder: HAMS provides support through a chat room, email group and live meetings to people internationally in the United States, Canada, Austria, Australia, and Thailand. The chat takes place at 9 pm Eastern. Approximately 6 to 10 people chat at a time and the group is not formally structured. In addition, approximately 1200 people participate in the email group, and the network averages about 20 messages a day. Live meetings also take place in Brooklyn and Oklahoma. A professionally led group also takes place in San Francisco, which uses HAMS principles.

SWH: What are the 17 elements of HAMS?

Founder: The 17 elements of HAMS include:
1. Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis of your drinking
2. Choose a drinking goal – safer drinking, reduced drinking, quitting drinking
3. Learn about risk ranking and rank your risks
4. Learn about the HAMS tools and strategies for changing your drinking
5. Make a plan to achieve your drinking goal
6. Use alcohol-free time to reset your drinking habits
7. Learn to cope without booze
8. Address outside issues that affect drinking
9. Learn to believe in yourself
10. Learn to have fun without booze
11. Use a chart to plan and track your drinks and drinking behavior day by day
12. Evaluate your progress – honestly report struggles – revise plans or goals as needed
13. Practice damage control as needed
14. Get back on the horse
15. Graduating from HAMS, sticking around or coming back
16. Praise yourself for every success
17. Move at your own pace – you don’t have to do it all at once

Please note that more information about these elements can be found in the HAMS book, How to Change Your Drinking: a Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol

SWH: How are the 17 elements of HAMS different from 12-step programs?

Founder: The 17 elements are optional and can be completed in any order; whereas, the 12-steps have to be completed in succession. HAMS recognizes that individuals can be unprepared when adverse circumstances occur in recovery; therefore, the program allows people to start at any element to clarify ambivalence. However, it is still important that an individual acknowledges that they drink, which is similar to the 12-step program.

SWH: What are your views on other means of harm reduction?

Founder: I believe in harm reduction because it saved my life. I also volunteered at a needle exchange program in Minneapolis in the past. It was a rewarding experience and I learned how to encourage a positive change in individuals by encouraging them to make small changes that could amount to a big lasting change. My experience with harm reduction encouraged me to establish HAMS in January 2007.

SWH: Why do you believe that harm reduction approaches are controversial?

Founder: Many individuals do not understand harm reduction approaches, as many individuals are not aware of the facts. Individuals do not always understand that abstinence is part of the harm reduction philosophy. However, we must continue to education individuals that harm reduction is helping people attain the goal of abstinence by making small changes to reach this goal. Thus, we are not encouraging individuals to use drugs, but do not require a person to maintain abstinence from alcohol.

For more information please visit the HAMS website or email Kenneth Anderson at hams@hamsnetwork.org.

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