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Community members from the Drug User Liberation Front hand out clean, tested doses of drugs at a demonstration demanding the legalization and regulation of safe alternatives to the toxic street drug supply in Vancouver on April 14.JESSE WINTER/Reuters

B.C. researchers are excluded from leading a federally funded evaluation of the province’s drug decriminalization policy, with the funding agency saying that those living or working in B.C. could present a conflict of interest.

The exclusion from the $2.85-million funding opportunity has baffled some researchers in the province, who say they are best positioned to do this work, given their local expertise, relationships and research infrastructure.

“It’s bordering on offensive, because it’s essentially saying that [B.C.] researchers wouldn’t be able to be impartial and arm’s-length, and manage any potential bias or conflict,” said Thomas Kerr, professor and head of the Division of Social Medicine at UBC and director of research at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use.

The province in November applied to Health Canada for an exemption from federal drug laws so it can decriminalize personal possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. The application was approved in May and the change takes effect on Jan. 31.

The operating grant is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the federal agency responsible for funding health and medical research in Canada.

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In a call for research proposals that closed July 28, the agency outlined criteria for “an independent evaluation of this landmark policy change,” including that applicants “cannot be in conflict of interest with the jurisdiction to be evaluated. This includes any applicant whose place of employment or residence is located in B.C.” As well, no member of the applicant team can be directly involved in any local evaluation of the new policy.

The team must, however, convene an arm’s-length advisory board, which can include researchers living or working in B.C. A decision is expected in early October, with funding to start Sept. 1.

In an interview, Eric Marcotte, associate scientific director at the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction, said the eligibility criteria were determined when several Canadian jurisdictions had expressed interest in drug decriminalization, before any exemption requests had been approved. (Vancouver and Toronto have also formally applied, Edmonton is preparing a request, and other cities have called for similar action.)

Dr. Marcotte noted that applicants are also required to be members of the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse – a national consortium of researchers, service providers, decision makers and people with lived experience. He said this is “so that, wherever an exemption was granted, there would be other researchers and other jurisdictions who could evaluate it without a risk of a real or perceived conflict of interest.”

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A nurse at the Crosstown Clinic, a supervised injection site in Vancouver, hands out a syringe of medical-grade heroin to a patient, on May 6.Jackie Dives/The New York Times News Service

“It was an approach we had taken before we knew actually what was going to be offered in terms of an exemption,” he said. “We had it basically preapproved using our internal processes, and then once the exemption was announced, we basically just put B.C. on the funding opportunity, got it finally approved and we launched.”

He added that, in some cases, local researchers had contributed to the applications for an exemption.

“Not knowing at the end of the day which group would be [chosen], we just decided that the best way to mitigate any potential real or perceived conflict of interest was to just have this standard policy,” he said.

Bernie Pauly, a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, said she was puzzled by the exclusion, as researchers go to great lengths to identify limitations and potential conflicts.

She said out-of-province researchers might face challenges in evaluating the policy without local expertise on the team and an established research infrastructure in B.C.

“If someone comes in new, they don’t necessarily understand all of the history and policies that have led up to this, and that’s a really important part of doing an evaluation because you’re understanding and putting into context what has happened that made it possible,” Dr. Pauly said.

There is also the question of whether B.C. researchers will share their data.

–“Some very good people will be funded to do this work – capable people, but who don’t have the data,” Dr. Kerr said. “And because of the way this has been set up, I think they might have a hard time getting people to agree to contribute their data.”

B.C. has convened its own committee to monitor and evaluate the decriminalization roll-out, as per Health Canada’s terms and conditions for the exemption.

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson was unavailable for an interview. In a statement, her ministry said it “welcomes the opportunity to learn from the findings of the successful proponent” of the federal research grant.

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