Canadian harm reduction policies: A comparative content analysis of provincial and territorial documents, 2000-2015



Wild TC, Pauly B, Belle-Isle L, Cavalieri W, Elliott R, Strike C, Tupper K, Hathaway A, Dell C, MacPherson D, Sinclair C, Karekezi K, Tan B & Hyshka E (2017) Canadian harm reduction policies: A comparative content analysis of provincial and territorial documents, 2000-2015. International Journal of Drug Policy, 45, pp. 9-17.

Background: Access to harm reduction interventions among substance users across Canada is highly variable, and largely within the policy jurisdiction of the provinces and territories. This study systematically described variation in policy frameworks guiding harm reduction services among Canadian provinces and territories as part of the first national multimethod case study of harm reduction policy. Methods: Systematic and purposive searches identified publicly-accessible policy texts guiding planning and organization of one or more of seven targeted harm reduction services: needle distribution, naloxone, supervised injection/consumption, low-threshold opioid substitution (or maintenance) treatment, buprenorphine/naloxone (suboxone), drug checking, and safer inhalation kits. A corpus of 101 documents written or commissioned by provincial/territorial governments or their regional health authorities from 2000 to 2015 were identified and verified for relevance by a National Reference Committee. Texts were content analyzed using an a priori governance framework assessing managerial roles and functions, structures, interventions endorsed, client characteristics, and environmental variables. Results: Nationally, few (12%) of the documents were written to expressly guide harm reduction services or resources as their primary named purpose; most documents included harm reduction as a component of broader addiction and/or mental health strategies (43%) or blood-borne pathogen strategies (43%). Most documents (72%) identified roles and responsibilities of health service providers, but fewer declared how services would be funded (56%), specified a policy timeline (38%), referenced supporting legislation (26%), or received endorsement from elected members of government (16%). Nonspecific references to ‘harm reduction’ appeared an average of 12.8 times per document—far more frequently than references to specific harm reduction interventions (needle distribution = 4.6 times/document; supervised injection service = 1.4 times/document). Low-threshold opioid substitution, safer inhalation kits, drug checking, and buprenorphine/naloxone were virtually unmentioned. Two cases (Quebec and BC) produced about half of all policy documents, while 6 cases – covering parts of Atlantic and Northern Canada – each produced three or fewer. Conclusion: Canada exhibited wide regional variation in policies guiding the planning and organization of Canadian harm reduction services, with some areas of the country producing few or no policies. Despite a wealth of effectiveness and health economic research demonstrating the value of specific harm reduction interventions, policies guiding Canada from 2000 to 2015 did not stake out harm reduction interventions as a distinct, legitimate health service domain.

Harm reduction; Policy; Content analysis;

International Journal of Drug Policy: Volume 45

Publication date31/07/2017
Date accepted by journal22/03/2017

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Professor Bernadette Pauly

Professor Bernadette Pauly

Honorary Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences