Knowledge Exchange in Action

Knowledge Exchange

On Thursday I got to attend a Canadian Association of HIV Research (CAHR) event, titled “Scaling up Comprehensive Health Care for People Who Use Drugs: A National Knowledge Exchange Forum on Adding Supervised Consumption Services to the Continuum of Care”.  A mouthful, I know, but a very interesting event. In this post, I’m mainly going to talk about how the event approached Knowledge Exchange, but first I’ll provide a bit of background on the context of the event.

Supervised consumption sites (SCSs) are one part of a continuum of harm reduction services. They are places where people can go to use both illicit drugs and licit drugs that they are using outside of the prescribed methods. If you don’t count all the marijuana cafes, most of the time, SCSs provide only supervised injection. There are also some some SCSs where people can smoke drugs like crack and heroin.  In Vancouver, we have at least 3 SCSs at: Insite, The Dr. Peter Centre, and  VANDU.

Now you might think to yourself, ‘Isn’t using drugs illegal? How is it possible for these places to avoid police crackdowns?’. Well, there are a few different ways, but for the context of the Knowledge Exchange event, I’m going to talk about Insite, which exists through a legal exemption. This exemption was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in a landmark decision made in September of 2011. This decision made loads of harm reduction advocates very happy.


And, now that this judgement has been upheld by Canada’s highest court, a lot of harm reduction advocates are pushing for exemptions for more SCSs across the country. So, the CAHR event provided a great opportunity for harm reduction advocates from across Canada to get together and talk about how we can reach this goal.

The session started with a legal breakdown of how the legal exemption works. A lawyer from PIVOT legal society explained in clear language that the exemption is under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and allows possession of drugs in order to protect the life and liberty of the individual in possession.

After the legal presentation, we heard from a representative from the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). He explained that the VPD supports Insite and that most police officers view drug use as a health issue rather than a law enforcement issue. This was an excellent opportunity to hear directly from police, who are often either missing from the SCS debate or on the opposite side of it.

Then, representatives from Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver spoke about their experiences trying set up SCSs and their future plans for applying for exemptions. Each of these cities has a very different political and drug use landscape so the exchange offered an opportunity to hear about the different approaches happening across the country. It was also a chance for advocates to support each other by lending ideas of what had worked for them in their cities.

The session ended with a brainstorming session for how advocates could better increase SCSs across the country. Drug users, policy makers, service providers and police participated in this discussion. Ideas ranged from messaging campaigns like ‘Just Say Yes’, to hosting knowledge exchange sessions across the country, to setting up more SCSs without any legal exemptions.

Most important to me was the opportunity to talk with other people in the harm reduction field, hear their experiences and talk about how we can support each other. I also got to learn about knowledge exchange through actually being part of it!

Three things that I think made this event successful were:

  • The opportunity to hear from people trying to do similar work in different political contexts;
  • The inclusion of a variety of stakeholders including service providers, policy makers, police and drug users, and;
  • The comfortable, supportive atmosphere that fostered the exchange of ideas.

Going forward, I hope advocates can work together to get more SCSs across the country. I know I met some people I’ll continue to work with.

Christie Wall


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