Harm Reduction: Law Enforcement’s New Strategy to End the War on Drugs

In 2018 the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition (PAHRC) embarked on an unlikely journey with the Pennsylvania Sheriffs Association (PSA). Funded by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and working closely with Vital Strategies, our organization stepped into uncharted waters.

In that same year almost 5000 Pennsylvanian’s died of a drug overdose — a rate that’s close to double the national average. The data paints a grim picture but remember these are lives. Each death is a life lost, a wounded family, and a community harmed in endless ways. This we cannot accept.

In 1980 over 40,000 people were incarcerated for drug crimes, today that number is almost 500,000 — an increase of 1,000 percent. Nationally, almost 70,000 people died of an accidental drug overdose in 2018, exceeding deaths from firearms, car accidents, and HIV/AIDS. The financial cost is staggering. The White House Council of Economic Advisers estimates almost $1 trillion is lost each year to the disease of addiction — and things aren’t improving.

In response to the current crisis of overdose deaths PAHRC and the PSA forged a relationship to change the game. We created a unique high impact harm reduction training program for law enforcement professionals across the state that puts people first — viewing and treating substance use disorder as the disease it is. We teach the harm reduction mindset and prioritize the health, well-being, and safety of our communities.

Creating this program and changing the attitudes of law enforcement professionals towards people who use drugs and communities impacted by drug use has not been easy — but we are making real progress. We are working closely with the University of Pennsylvania to evaluate our program. The early results are promising — and demonstrate significant changes in how law enforcement professionals view the people we serve. Our success is a direct result of our partnership with the PSA and their Executive Director, Thomas M. Maioli Jr.

Tom has served in the law enforcement community for over four decades at the county, state, and federal levels as well as in the private law enforcement training sector. He has worked as an Investigator in the Allegheny County (PA) District Attorney’s Office, and as an Agent in the PA Office of the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BCI). He has served as a Supervising Special Agent and Assistant Deputy Chief at the BCI. Tom has worked in narcotics intelligence for the United States Department of Justice and has been actively involved in national law enforcement training. 

Tom has become an instrumental partner and advocate for evidence-based harm reduction strategies that work. He has helped us build a training program that educates, demystifies, and humanizes those with substance use disorders. He has helped us see the challenges law enforcement face and find new practical strategies that serve all. He has truly become a guide and a friend to our organization as we search for ways to solve the worst public health crisis of our time. 

We are excited to continue our relationship with the PSA and expand our training across the state and nationally. We believe working together and finding creative solutions that serve our most marginalized will lead to solutions that serve us all.



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