Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


John Mollenkopf

Subject Categories

Political Science | Public Policy


Harm Reduction; Institutionalization; Public Health; Social Policy


This dissertation is a qualitative study of the emergence and evolution of harm reduction drug policies in New York City. It examines harm reduction as a case of the institutionalization of a public health policy movement. Harm reduction seeks to treat the medical and social consequences of drug use without requiring abstinence. The dissertation examines the process by which harm reduction has managed, in the words of one informant, to 'get out of the ghetto' and become increasingly integrated into New York's public health establishment. Harm reduction has undergone three stages of institutionalization. It began as an activist policy movement. This was followed by a period of partial institutionalization, characterized by grant funding, organizational autonomy and limited state support. Finally, with harm reduction's integration into Medicaid as well as the widespread adoption of naloxone overdose prevention strategies, it has assumed a mainstream position within the health system. This dissertation argues that institutionalization has changed harm reduction at the grassroots level and also contributed to wider changes in the design and delivery of public health in New York State. While some activists remain skeptical of what they see as harm reduction's co-optation, the process has created new relationships between marginalized communities and the state, and led to new forms of social and political inclusion for drug users. This research demonstrates the effectiveness of social movements as policy actors and provides a case study of progressive policy change during a period marked by the privatization and restructuring of social welfare provision. The harm reduction approach, pioneered by drug users and public health activists, is now being applied to the health system more broadly.