Research led by people who use drugs: centering the expertise of lived experience

Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy. 2021 Sep 20;16(1):70. doi: 10.1186/s13011-021-00406-6.


Background: Research collaborations between people who use drugs (PWUD) and researchers are largely underutilized, despite the long history of successful, community-led harm reduction interventions and growing health disparities experienced by PWUD. PWUD play a critical role in identifying emerging issues in the drug market, as well as associated health behaviors and outcomes. As such, PWUD are well positioned to meaningfully participate in all aspects of the research process, including population of research questions, conceptualization of study design, and contextualization of findings.

Main body: We argue PWUD embody unparalleled and current insight to drug use behaviors, including understanding of novel synthetic drug bodies and the dynamics at play in the drug market; they also hold intimate and trusting relationships with other PWUD. This perfectly situates PWUD to collaborate with researchers in investigation of drug use behaviors and development of harm reduction interventions. While PWUD have a history of mistrust with the medical community, community-led harm reduction organizations have earned their trust and are uniquely poised to facilitate research projects. We offer the North Carolina Survivors Union as one such example, having successfully conducted a number of projects with reputable research institutions. We also detail the fallacy of meaningful engagement posed by traditional mechanisms of capturing community voice. As a counter, we detail the framework developed and implemented by the union in hopes it may serve as guidance for other community-led organizations. We also situate research as a mechanism to diversify the job opportunities available to PWUD and offer a real-time example of the integration of these principles into public policy and direct service provision.

Conclusion: In order to effectively mitigate the risks posed by the fluid and volatile drug market, research collaborations must empower PWUD to play meaningful roles in the entirety of the research process. Historically, the most effective harm reduction interventions have been born of the innovation and heart possessed by PWUD; during the current overdose crisis, there is no reason to believe they will not continue to be.

Keywords: Community driven research; Community-led research; Drug user unions; Harm reduction; People who use drugs; Syringe service programs.

Publication types

  • Letter
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Drug Overdose*
  • Harm Reduction
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations*
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / prevention & control


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations