Implementation contexts and the impact of policing on access to supervised consumption services in Toronto, Canada: a qualitative comparative analysis [2019]

Supervised consumption services (SCS) are being implemented across Canada in response to a variety of drug-related harms. We explored the implementation context of newly established SCS in Toronto and the role of policing in shaping program access by people who inject drugs (PWID).

We conducted one-to-one qualitative semi-structured interviews with 24 PWID. Participants were purposively recruited. Ethnographic observations were conducted at each of the study sites as well as in their respective neighbourhoods. Relevant policy documents were also reviewed.

Policing was overwhelmingly discussed by participants from both SCS sites. However, participant responses varied depending on the site in question. Subthemes from participant responses on policing at site #1 described neighbourhood police presence and fears of police harassment and drug arrests before, during, or after accessing SCS. Conversely, subthemes from participant responses on policing at site #2 described immunity and protection from police while using the SCS, as well as a lack of police presence or fears of police harassment and arrests. These differences in implementation contexts were largely shaped by differences in local neighbourhoods and drug scenes. Police policies highlighted federal laws protecting PWID within SCS, but also the exercise of discretion when applying the rule of law outside of these settings.

Participants’ perspectives on, and experiences with, policing as they relate to accessing SCS were shaped by the implementation contexts of each SCS site and how neighbourhoods, drug scenes, and differences in policing practices affected service use. Our findings also demonstrate the disconnect between the goals of policing and those of SCS. Until larger structural barriers are addressed (e.g. criminalization), future SCS programming should consider the impact of policing on the SCS implementation context to improve client experience with, and access to, SCS.

Geoff Bardwell, Carol Strike, Jason Altenberg, Lorraine Barnaby & Thomas Kerr
Harm Reduction Journal, volume 16, Article number: 30 (2019)