Principles, practice, and policy vacuums: Policy actor views on provincial/territorial harm reduction policy in Canada



Hyshka E, Anderson-Baron J, Pugh A, Belle-Isle L, Hathaway A, Pauly B, Strike C, Asbridge M, Dell C, McBride K, Tupper K & Wild TC (2019) Principles, practice, and policy vacuums: Policy actor views on provincial/territorial harm reduction policy in Canada. International Journal of Drug Policy, 71, pp. 142-149.

Introduction Canada is experiencing a new era of harm reduction policymaking and investment. While many provinces and territories are expanding access to these services, harm reduction policy and policymaking varies across the country. The present study, part of the Canadian Harm Reduction Policy Project (CHARPP), described policy actors’ views on formal harm reduction policies in Canada’s 13 provinces and territories. Methods As part of CHARPP’s mixed-method, multiple case study, we conducted qualitative interviews with 75 policy actors, including government officials, health system leaders, senior staff at community organizations, and advocates with self-identified lived experience of using drugs. Interviews were conducted in English or French, and recorded and transcribed verbatim. We used latent content analysis to inductively code the data and generate main findings. NVivo 11 was used to organize the transcripts. Results Participants expressed divergent views on formal provincial/territorial policies and their impact on availability of harm reduction programs and services. While some identified a need to develop new policies or improve existing ones, others resisted bureaucratization of harm reduction or felt the absence of formal policy was instead, advantageous. Instances where harm reduction was advanced outside of formal policymaking were also described. Discussion Previous CHARPP research documented wide variability in quantity and quality of formal harm reduction policies across Canada, and characterized official policy documents as serving largely rhetorical rather than instrumental functions. The present findings highlight diverse ways that actors used their discretion to navigate these weak policy contexts. Participants’ views and experiences sometimes referred to strengthening policy support, but institutionalization of harm reduction was also resisted or rejected. Results suggest that actors adopt a range of pragmatic strategies to advance harm reduction services in response to policy vacuums characteristic of morality policy domains, and challenge assumptions about the utility of formal policies for advancing harm reduction.

harm reduction; policymaking; Canada; opioid crisis; qualitative research; key informant reviews;

International Journal of Drug Policy: Volume 71

FundersCanadian Institutes of Health ResearchCanadian Institutes of Health Research
Publication date30/09/2019
Publication date online30/01/2019
Date accepted by journal30/01/2019
PublisherElsevier BV

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Professor Bernadette Pauly

Professor Bernadette Pauly

Honorary Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences