Harm reduction programs for Quebec drug users await promised funding

The pandemic has worsened the opioid overdose situation in Quebec and the rest of Canada. But funding to help groups who offer supervized injection sites and other services to keep drug users safe has not been delivered, leaving many scrambling.

Provincial organizations have been waiting since April for government grants

A member of the harm reduction organization GRIP tests drugs in the group's mobile unit. (GRIP/Facebook)

Organizations working to reduce drug harm say funding promised by the province has not come through this year and they are struggling to maintain services.

At the Groupe de recherche et d'intervention psychosociale (GRIP) in Montreal, they've been waiting on $278,000 from the province since April.

"That money is salaries, it's services to the population," Magali Boudon, the non-profit's director, said.

The funding delays are due in part to the pandemic and the impact it has had on the Health Ministry's human resources. But they are happening against the backdrop of an ever worsening national overdose crisis.

In Quebec, there were 339 deaths caused by drug intoxication between January and September, 2021. This is less than the number recorded during that same period last year but remains above pre-pandemic levels.

To add to that, recent modelling released by a federal advisory committee on opioid overdoses suggests that the number of opioid-related deaths could remain high and even increase in 2022.

The committee, co-chaired by Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Jennifer Russell, cites an increasingly tainted drug supply and limited access to harm reduction services among the factors driving up the intensity of the crisis.

So far, GRIP has been able to rely on surplus money from last year to fund its outreach work. But Boudon said that other groups haven't been so lucky and have had to resort to bank loans to pay salaries.

"That's not normal," she said.

GRIP deploys a mobile drug-testing unit to help recreational users understand the makeup of their drugs before consuming them.

Kathryn Balind, GRIP’s research and development officer, top left, has had to deal with reduced resources. (GRIP/Facebook)

Kathryn Balind, GRIP's research and development officer, helps run the mobile drug-testing unit, which right now can be deployed only once a week, on Thursdays, in a parking on the southern corner of La Fontaine Park.

"It would be great if we had at least two more people on the team to manage everything," she said, adding that a bigger team would allow GRIP to deploy the van three times a week.

Shifting limited resources 

Boudon says the funding problems have made staffing particularly difficult.

Two weeks ago, GRIP's drug-checking team lost two of its members temporarily due to health reasons leaving Balind as the sole member on her team. To make up for the loss, Boudon had to shift staff from other departments into the mobile unit.

"Financially we don't have the means to back ourselves in those situations," said Boudon, adding that she was considering hiring one more person, but that it would be a financial risk for the group.

"The money we use for this, we'll take it away from somewhere else," said Boudon. "We need to buy furniture for the new location we just moved into but we won't put the money there, we'll put it into staff."

Boudon said she received assurances in a letter in November from provincial public health officials that the money would come.

The Health Ministry says it is allocating $15 million in funding for 2021-2022 for organizations working in harm reduction — an amount that was secured over the summer of 2021.

"But it's December and we haven't received anything," Boudon said. She said GRIP has started to work on securing more private funding.