|Suspected drug overdose deaths in Saskatchewan as of the beginning of June already exceed half of what the province saw in the entirety of 2020, and the majority of the deaths are happening in Regina.
According to the Regina Police Service, the first quarter of this year saw 47 apparent overdose deaths in the city. In the same time frame last year, there were 19 deaths.
Regina Police Chief Evan Bray said the “huge spike” of drug overdoses in 2020 hasn’t slowed down, and officers respond to overdose calls daily.
“Compared to this time last year, where it was a big problem but people weren’t understanding it and talking about it, now people are talking about it more and I think that is setting us up - I’m hopeful - for some positive steps in the future,” Chief Bray said. “We understand the benefit and the need for harm reduction in the overall strategy.”
Chief Bray said the increase in overdoses over the past year and a half has caused the police service to make some change in how it operates. All front line officers now have Naloxone kits with them at all times.
“We’re saving dozens of lives in the past 18 months just by our officers being able to administer Narcan,” he said.
The police service has also put more time and resources into investigations. Bray mentioned that resources to support harm reduction will work hand-in-hand with existing police efforts to prevent drugs from entering the city.
“That harmful substance is what is killing people, so we have to do our part in trying to limit that coming into our community,” Chief Bray said. “As police we’re doing our part to try and dig into this as a law enforcement issue when it comes to the large amount of drugs that are coming into our community to be trafficked. We also need to help our health partners and others dig into this from a health perspective, because that’s what addictions and substance abuse disorders are all about.”
SUPPORT IN THE CITY
The City of Regina launched a new one-time harm reduction grant last week. The 500,000 grant will be distributed between harm reduction programs and services.
“It was identified by councillors that this was a need for the city,” Kelly Husack, a policy analyst with the City of Regina, said. “There’s been an increase in the amount of overdoses we’ve seen, as well as varying substances that are increasingly lethal, so we want to be able to provide as much support as possible to the community to ensure the safety of everyone is a priority.”
The application deadline is July 30 and funds will be distributed in September. It has not been decided yet how the funds will be split up.
One organization applying for the funding is The Newo Yotina Friendship Centre, a monitored overdose prevention site in downtown Regina. The centre opened about two weeks ago.
Michael Parker, the site’s executive director, said it’s been a smooth opening, but support is still needed from the provincial government. Parker said right now, the Saskatchewan Health Authority provides supplies used at the centre and that’s it.
“It’s absolutely essential that we have provincial support,” he said. “It’s what’s needed long term. It’s considered a health care issue and that’s within the province’s group of responsibility.”
Harm reduction programs and services went unmentioned in Saskatchewan’s 2021-22 budget, after a similar program in Saskatoon requested funding support from the province.
Parker said there have been no overdoses reported at the centre so far, but he believes some have been prevented.
“We’ve had a steady increase in people accessing the service and getting more comfortable,” he said. “We have folks who are coming back on a regular basis.”
Right now, the service is only funded until the end of September. Parker said this grant money from the city could help keep the doors open longer.
“Our plan is to seek funding that would allow us to operate from the end of September all the way until December 2022,” he said. During that time, The Friendship Centre will work on getting the permanent exemption needed to operate from the federal government.
He said community members have been a major support so far, with some people even donating their SGI rebates to the centre.
Everett Hindley, the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said some help has been given.
“Earlier this year, I provided approval for the temporary site to operate in Regina at The Friendship Centre and also directed the SHA to provide harm reduction supplies,” Hindley said. “What we’re trying to do is provide as much support as we can. We know we’re not going to solve all these challenges here in one budget, that’s why we’ve built up substantially larger and larger budgets with funding directed towards mental health and addiction.”
Hindley said conversations will continue with The Friendship Centre for funding possibilities in the future.
OVERDOSES A PROVINCIAL PROBLEM
Although Regina is currently seeing the highest rates of overdose, the problem does exist across the province.
Last year in Saskatchewan there were 340 overdose deaths - 273 are confirmed and 67 are suspected.
So far this year there have been 171 overdose deaths - 46 are confirmed and 125 are suspected.
Hindley said the provincial government is trying to provide supports and services to as many people and organizations in Saskatchewan as possible.
He highlighted the expansion of the Naloxone kit program and a new program that will see harm reduction buses on the streets of Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert.
“We’ll have professionals on board to help individuals with treatment plans because we know while harm reduction is one part of it, we need to focus also on prevention and treatment as well,” he said.
He said there is no set date for the harm reduction buses to launch, but the goal is to see them hit the road as soon as possible.