The Moderation Movement is Making a Comeback…Does It Work?

For millions of addicts around the world, the path to freedom from the ravages of addiction has been through total abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Drug treatment facilities, 12-step programs and countless support groups center their philosophy around the themes of powerlessness in an addict’s abuse and getting the tools and support needed to stay substance free.  Abstinence-based recovery, however, is not the only recovery game in town.

The Emergence of Harm Reduction and the Moderation Movement

drinking with friends

Over the past two decades, there has been an emergence of recovery programs that embrace a harm reduction philosophy in regards to recovery. Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies that are intended to reduce the negative consequences of high risk behaviors associated with drug and alcohol abuse.  While abstinence is encouraged, this philosophy supports those who wish to moderate their use so that it reduces the harm to themselves and to society as a whole.

It is no surprise that harm reduction has caused great controversy within the recovery community. The thought that recovery from substance abuse doesn’t require abstinence rubs severely against the grain of what we understand and have been told about addiction. To add fuel to the fire, SAMHSA released an updated definition of recovery in 2011 which did not mention abstinence:

“A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

The focus on improving one’s quality of life and away from abstinence has been gaining momentum and harm reduction-based recovery groups such as LifeRing, The Life Process Program, Moderation Management and Rational Recovery have become more visible and fanning the flames of debate in the recovery community.

It is an interesting question…..

What if you were told that you could moderate your drinking and drug use and be healthy, productive and happy and not have to totally quit? It is a thought that can stop you in your tracks. While controversial, it is important to look at what the Moderation Movement offers addicts and if it can work.

What is the Philosophy of the Moderation Movement?


One important distinction between moderation-based recovery programs and abstinence-based programs is how they view addiction. Abstinence-based recovery views addiction as a complex and progressive disease in which ceasing substance use is seen as the only way to halt its’ progress. In the Moderation Movement, addiction is seen as a learned behavior. However, groups that follow a moderation/harm reduction philosophy do state the addiction in itself is complex and progressive in nature.

Another important distinction to make is how each group defines the power of the individual in overcoming their addiction. In traditional abstinence based programs, the addict is seen as being powerless in the face of their addiction, has become unmanageable and requires the addict to surrender to others or a “higher power”. In the Moderation Movement, it is believed that the addict has the power in controlling their addiction. Through group support, goal-setting, monitoring and through educational programs, addicts can learn to either quit substances for good or moderate their use to a level which allows them to become productive and happy.

By extension, proponents of moderation movement-based programs also feel that labels such as alcoholic or addict are unnecessary. These groups empower individuals to accept personal responsibility for choosing and maintaining their own path, whether it is through moderation or abstinence. Additionally, these groups promote early self-recognition of risky drinking behavior, when moderate drinking is a more easily achievable goal.

Do These Programs Work?

young girl drinking

No matter what the philosophy, the bottom line question that all addicts ask is whether the program will help them recover from abuse and return to a sense of normalcy. In regards to programs that utilize harm reduction and moderation, there is a lack of sizable research that shows long-term recovery using these methods. However, there are some smaller scale studies which show moderation approaches can have success.

One such study centers on the LEAD program in Seattle, Washington. Established four years ago, this program is a street-level harm reduction program that helps addicts recover, find housing and employment and keeps them out of the judicial system. In an independent study done by researchers at the University of Washington, participants in the program are 34 to 58 percent less likely to commit further crimes compared with people who are prosecuted and imprisoned.

While this type of study shows can imply that harm reduction and moderation programs can have a direct impact on addicts, more studies need to be conducted to see whether these programs have lasting impacts down the road.

Is a Moderation-Based Program Going to Be Right for Me?

The million dollar question….and it is one that you may hesitate to ask yourself, did you do so nevertheless…

Will a moderation or harm reduction program work for me?

As stated earlier, these programs fly in the face of conventional wisdom in the recovery community. If you are struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction and your life is spinning out of control, is a program that offers addicts the possibility of using in moderation the best solution?

In an article in The Fix, Stanford professor Dr. Keith Humpheys–who studies addiction and self-help groups–offers the following:

“The typical MM member is employed, has a college degree and has few or no symptoms of alcohol dependence (e.g., blackouts, shakes, sweats). This is exactly the sort of person who has the best chance of becoming a successful moderate drinker,” he says. “AA members in contrast tend to show signs of physical dependence on alcohol and have also had their lives more damaged by alcohol, e.g., they have blown out their marriage/job/housing situation. They are the sort of people who are unlikely to become moderate drinkers and would be better off abstaining.”

The bottom line is that recovery is not a one size fits all proposition. However, for those with severe addiction issues and have a history of failed attempts to get clean and sober, a moderation approach would be ineffective.

Are You Losing Your Battle With Addiction?

While it may be tempting to think that moderation can be the answer to your addiction, the truth is that many people struggle to a degree where they need the professional intervention and guidance that an experienced and proven treatment facility can provide. For over four decades, Dream Center for Recovery has helped addicts from all walks of life break the cycle of addiction and helped them find the serenity and health that comes with a substance-free lifestyle.

Our drug treatment programs are effective and proven to work and we also provide a full continuum of care that helps heal the addict in mind, body and spirit. Our holistic approach is what sets us apart from other drug rehab facilities. If you or a loved one needs help, call us today and give yourself the ultimate gift of recovery.