By Naomi Carr

Last updated: 13 June 2024 & medically reviewed by Dr. David Miles

The use of substances, whether they are over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, or illicit substances, can result in adverse effects. Understanding these effects and how to prevent them can improve safety when using substances. Various services and resources are available to learn more about drug safety.

Drug Safety and Harm Reduction Resources

What is drug safety?

Drug safety refers to the safe production, testing, and use of legal and illegal drugs. 

When new medications are produced, they must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before being sold to the public. The FDA tests the safety and side effects of the drug, how it is manufactured, and whether medication labels include necessary warnings and contraindications. After the drug is approved, they continue to monitor its safety and can withdraw it from the market if dangerous effects occur. [1]

Drug safety can also apply to the use of illicit substances. Although no illicit substance is considered safe, there are ways to reduce the potential harm that the use of these substances can cause. [2]

Examples of drug safety resources

Testing drugs

Many street drugs are produced illicitly in laboratories. This means that the content of a pill or powder being sold is unknown. If a person unknowingly consumes a substance or takes a larger dose than anticipated, they can be at increased risk of adverse effects or overdose. In recent years, there has been an increasing frequency of drugs containing fentanyl, a very potent and dangerous opioid. [3]

Drugs can be tested for fentanyl or if another specific substance is present or the amount of a certain substance. This can allow individuals to make an informed decision about if and how they use the drug and may prevent dangerous consequences. [4]

Needle exchange programs

Needle exchange programs, also referred to as syringe services programs (SSPs) and syringe exchange programs (SEPs), provide access to clean and sterile needles and syringes. These services can also include disposing of used needles and providing information about and referrals to addiction or healthcare services. [5]

This can help reduce the transmission of infections and diseases, educate people about safer drug use, overdose prevention, and wound care, and provide support to those requiring mental or physical health services. [5][6]

Supervised consumption services

Supervised consumption services (SCS) are a space in which people can use drugs while being monitored for safety. This can help prevent overdoses, reduce infection and disease transmission, and improve public safety. Many countries worldwide offer these services, although there are currently few operating in the US. [7]

Latest: Federal Judge Rules Against SCS Project in Philadelphia

Overdose prevention

Taking a large amount of a substance can increase the risk of overdose. For some substances, medications can be used to reverse or treat these harmful effects and can, in many cases, be lifesaving. For example, opioid overdose can be treated with naloxone, an opioid antagonist that reverses the effects of opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and oxycodone. [8]

Read our guide to learn what to do in the event of an overdose.

Harm reduction education

Various organizations and websites provide information about substances, including the potential effects, safer dosage and administration, and managing difficult experiences. Educating individuals on safer drug use can prevent many harmful effects and provide individuals with the necessary information and resources to improve their safety. [2]


Various helplines are available for individuals seeking support or advice about substance use and mental health issues. This can improve drug safety by helping prevent overdose, providing information and education, and ensuring that people can access support. [9][10]

Where can I find drug test strips?

Due to the increase in opioid overdose deaths in the US within recent years, federal funding has been allocated to various grant programs to be used in the purchasing and distribution of fentanyl test strips. The availability of fentanyl test strips may vary depending on the city or state. [11][12]

The North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN) provides a map of many harm reduction locations across the US, including facilities in which fentanyl test strips can be found. 

Some organizations attend events such as festivals with testing strips, offering free drug testing to attendees. [4]

Drug test strips can also be bought online at:

Where can I find overdose prevention?

Naloxone is a medication that can reverse and prevent opioid overdose and is available in various forms throughout the US. Naloxone nasal spray has been approved by the FDA to be obtained over the counter without a prescription. [13]

The nasal spray can be purchased in various pharmacies and different forms of naloxone are provided free of charge by various community or public health programs. Availability may vary depending on local and state regulations and stock resources. [8][13]

The NASEN distribution map shows sites where naloxone is distributed. The National Harm Reduction Coalition also provides a map with available naloxone resources.

Training on the use of naloxone can be found through various community programs or organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Where can I find a local needle exchange?

The NASEN distribution map provides details of many needle exchange programs across North America.

Additional information about needle exchange programs can be found on the CDC and National Harm Reduction Coalition websites.

Drug safety resources

Various organizations provide resources to help individuals learn harm reduction strategies and safer drug use practices. This includes:

Zendo Project

The Zendo Project provides information and education about:

  • Harm reduction strategies when using substances

  • Managing unpleasant or frightening experiences caused by drug effects

  • The importance of a safe and comfortable environment when using substances

Dance Safe

Dance Safe provides information about:

  • Testing drugs and understanding the results

  • Strategies for harm reduction, including protecting physical and sexual health when using substances

  • Specific substances, including information about the effects and dosages

National Harm Reduction Coalition

The National Harm Reduction Coalition offers information and education about:

  • The safer use of substances

  • Harm reduction issues and strategies

  • Skills and knowledge development

  • Details about substance-related health services and where to find them

Government organizations that provide information on legal and illegal drug safety, testing, overdose prevention, and treatments include:

Helplines and treatment

Drugs can cause various adverse effects on mental and physical well-being, so it can be helpful to know who to contact in case of emergency, when requiring advice, or when concerned about a substance-related experience.

In the event of an emergency, call 911. 

Some of the available helplines include:

SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) runs a 24/7 helpline for information, advice, and referrals relating to mental health and substance use issues.

Fireside Project: 62-FIRESIDE (62-34737433)

Fireside Project offers a service called the Psychedelic Support Line, which offers emotional support to individuals during or after experiences with psychedelic substances or those who are seeking help in supporting others.

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline offers 24/7 support to people in distress, to help prevent suicide and manage crisis situations.

Never Use Alone: 1-800-484-3731

Never Use Alone offers a phone line service that can help people use drugs safely and prevent overdose. The volunteers gather information about the individual’s location and the substance being used and stay on the line to ensure the individual is safe during and following administration.


Individuals seeking treatment for substance use disorders or associated conditions can consult with their local doctor, who may complete an assessment or make a referral to specialist services. 

Treatment options can also be found by using

Various treatment options are available for people experiencing substance-related issues, including: [14]

  • Medications: Medications can be used to prevent overdose, manage mental health symptoms that contribute to substance use, manage pain or other physical health conditions that contribute to substance use, or help with withdrawal and detox. A doctor can discuss appropriate options with the individual and prescribe suitable medications. 

  • Therapy: Psychotherapy can help reduce mental health symptoms that contribute to substance use, recognize and change harmful behaviors, and learn coping strategies. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used therapy in the treatment of substance use disorders and related conditions.

  • Group support: Many communities provide group therapy or meetings for individuals affected by substance use, including Narcotics Anonymous and 12-step programs.

  • Inpatient treatment: People requiring intensive support with stopping substance use may benefit from inpatient treatment. This can include monitoring, psychological support, and medicinal treatment for withdrawal and detox or rehabilitation.