I never made it to college or university. As a matter of fact, I never even completed high school. So the idea that I could one day be a skilled and experienced mixed-methods researcher, get paid for my knowledge and respected when I spoke, and co-author published papers and articles far exceeded my modest dreams. I had participated in research in the past as an interviewee—giving my perspective on a variety of subjects—but never from the investigative side. As you can imagine, when I was offered the opportunity to train and work as a qualitative researcher I was thrilled and jumped at the chance, particularly as the subject was one I was personally and professionally invested in: safe(r) supply.
“This project laid a path for me. Now all I have to do is walk it!”
~ Phoenix Beck McGreevy
Imagine Safer Supply is a massive undertaking—a multi-provincial qualitative research project seeking to explore the attitudes and perceptions people have about safer supply. We spoke to both people who identify as substance users and people who were primarily involved in frontline service provision to drug users. We found that there is less of a hard line dividing these two groups than we had expected.
I started with the project as a member of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) in the summer of 2020. The team consists of the principal investigators, research associate, research assistants, and our community advisory team—the group with which I did most of my work on the project. Our committee had members with lived and living experience of drug use and/or the provision of frontline services for people who use drugs, as these were the two groups upon which our qualitative research was focused. Amongst our team, we found a similar level of crossover between the user/service provider camps as we did among the participants.
We started from a blank slate, learning each step of research: developing interview questions, ethics review, leading interviews, and finally on to data analysis and knowledge translation. Unfortunately, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was in its first year, we were unable to do any of our work in person despite being dispersed across the country from British Columbia to Quebec. The team met frequently on Zoom and co-conducted qualitative interviews by phone or Zoom.
The research itself tested my newly minted but fierce qualitative interview skills. At first, I relied heavily upon the interview guides, asking each question in order and going through the prompts dutifully. I kept an eye on the time, shepherding participants along through the questions, neglecting to probe worthwhile digressions for the sake of following the guide in front of me. As each interview progressed and I debriefed with my colleagues—accepting constructive criticism—I became more comfortable with the art of interviewing. I began to sense where the really interesting stuff was and how to tease it out of each participant.
Our project has the word “imagine” in its title for a reason. We are asking people to envision their ideal safe supply program, from the available substances to the staff and the setting. We soon found that getting people to imagine something that doesn’t yet exist is very difficult and takes finesse to avoid influencing people’s responses. So many of the people we spoke to brought up ideas and then shot them down, saying things like, “Oh, well that would never work here because…” Many participants found their concepts limited by existing societal and governmental structures. However, we encouraged people to really dream, to imagine models of safe supply that could be possible outside prohibition or medical models, and even capitalism and criminalization. When people ventured outside the realm of what’s currently possible, that was where the really beautiful data lived.
For some participants, the primary focus of their ideal safe supply program was about the effect it would have on their lives. People dreamed of the life they could lead without having to hustle or do crime to feel normal. For others, it was about the physical, brick-and-mortar site of such a program. They laid out plans for community centres that welcomed people who use drugs and offered a sense of belonging and kinship where they could find wellness, however that felt for them.
We encouraged people to really dream, to imagine models of safe supply that could be possible outside prohibition or medical models, and even capitalism and criminalization. When people ventured outside the realm of what’s currently possible, that was where the really beautiful data lived.
Once the data collection phase was completed, we began data analysis. Spirited Zoom calls ensued as we developed our code book, combing transcripts and thinking critically about what each quote meant and how to categorize it. Each of us had different skills and interests that were shaped and honed further, bringing value to our analysis. Once our code book was fully developed and captured all the rich information our participants offered, we began to analyze the data in earnest. Currently, the team is working on analysis of the themes presented within the transcripts before we move on to knowledge translation. We plan to bring the project full circle by presenting the findings to our own communities, wider harm reduction and drug policy audiences, and drug user organizing groups, to inform their work moving forward.
On this project, I discovered a passion and aptitude for research that I didn’t know I possessed. Each new skill I learned was exciting and I burned to know more. The idea of taking things that the community knows and transmuting it into the hallowed form of “evidence” was thrilling to me. Creating data that could be used to make change and speak truth to power—I never dreamed it would be something I could do.
This project enabled me to imagine more than just safer supply programs: it led me to imagine a place for myself in academia and a career in research. This project laid a path for me. Now all I have to do is walk it!