(Re)situating expertise in community-based overdose response: Insights from an ethnographic study of overdose prevention sites (OPS) in Vancouver, Canada

Int J Drug Policy. 2023 Jan;111:103929. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2022.103929. Epub 2022 Dec 16.


Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS) are low-barrier services where people may use illicit drugs under the monitoring of staff trained to provide life-saving care in the event of an overdose. In British Columbia (BC), Canada, OPS have been rapidly scaled-up as a community-based response to the overdose crisis and are staffed primarily by community members who are also people who use drugs (PWUD). While it is known that PWUD perform vital roles in OPS and other community-based overdose interventions, the expertise and expert knowledge of PWUD in this work remains under-theorised. This study draws on 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Vancouver, BC (July 2018 to March 2020), to explore how OPS responders who are PWUD developed and enacted expertise in overdose response. Ethnographic fieldwork focused on four OPS located in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) and Downtown South neighbourhoods. Methods included 100 hours of observation in the sites and surrounding areas, three site-specific focus groups with OPS responders (n=20), and semi-structured interviews with OPS responders (n=14) and service users (n=23). Data was analysed with the aim of characterizing the knowledge underpinning responders' expertise, and the arrangements which allow for the formation and enactment of expertise. We found that OPS responders' expertise was grounded in experiential knowledge acquired through their positionality as PWUD and members of a broader community of activists engaged in mutual aid. Responders became skilled in overdose response through frequent practice and drew on their experiential and embodied knowledge of overdose to provide care that was both technically proficient and responsive to the broader needs of PWUD (e.g. protection from criminalization and stigmatizing treatment). Responders emphasized that the spatial arrangements of OPS supported the development of expertise by facilitating more specialized and comprehensive overdose care. OPS became sites of collective expertise around overdose management as responder teams developed shared understandings of overdose management, including processes for managing uncertainty, delegating team responsibilities, and sharing decision-making. This research re-situates theoretical understandings of expertise in community-based overdose response with implications for overdose prevention interventions. Findings underscore the experiential and embodied expertise of PWUD as community-based responders; the importance of supportive environments and team-based approaches for overdose response; and the benefits of community-driven training that extends beyond technical skills of overdose identification and naloxone administration.

Keywords: Ethnography; Expertise; Opioid overdose; Overdose education and response; Peer workers; People who use drugs; Qualitative research.

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • British Columbia
  • Canada
  • Drug Overdose* / drug therapy
  • Drug Overdose* / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs*
  • Naloxone / therapeutic use


  • Naloxone
  • Illicit Drugs