'Harm is happening right now' as overdoses increase in Regina, says Regina police chief

Regina saw more than 1,000 overdoses and 111 overdose deaths in 2020, and according to a new report from the Board of Police Commissioners, those numbers are still increasing in 2021.

Regina police Chief Evan Bray says the city urgently needs more harm reduction.

Naloxone can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. In January and February 2021, Regina police officers administered Naloxone four times. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Regina saw more than 1,000 overdoses and 111 overdose deaths in 2020, and according to a new report from the Board of Police Commissioners, those numbers are still increasing in 2021.

In the first two months of this year, the police say there were 292 drug overdoses in the city and 28 people have died. 

"It appears that, in 2021, we're not slowing down," said Evan Bray, chief of police for the Regina Police Service . "That, to me, is why there is urgency on this topic."

To save lives, Bray said the city desperately needs more harm reduction resources and they can't come soon enough.

"I do think that Naloxone and community safe needle exchange programs, safe inhalation kit exchange programs, those types of things, are absolutely essential," said Bray.

"We work with public health officers in our community to try and figure out strategies and ways this could be addressed, so these conversations are happening but they need to happen rapidly in order to truly be considered harm reduction, because harm is happening right now."

Along with responding to emergency calls when someone overdoses, Bray also said police are often dispatched when people with substance use disorders are victims of crimes like physical assaults and robberies. By focusing on harm reduction, Bray is hoping to change all those numbers.

"Long term, if we want to not keep attending to Joe Smith's house and Joe Smith has an addiction problem, and every time we attend there it's because someone has come into his house and robbed him or he's overdosing, truly solving the problem is not to put more police resources to keep going to his house," said Bray.

"Instead, let's figure out why this is happening and what we can do to prevent it from happening again." 

Bray said police do have a role to play in overdose prevention, particularly when it comes to addressing high-level drug trafficking and importation. But he believes the people actively struggling with addiction in the city need healthcare, not handcuffs.

"Criminalizing someone who is possessing a drug because of a substance use disorder is not going to get us anywhere in terms of helping them with what truly is a health problem," said Bray.

He said the Regina Police Service has rolled out naloxone to all front line officers.

Decriminalization may be an option

In a report published last summer, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police — of which Bray is a member — recommended decriminalizing the simple possession of illicit drugs.

"[Decriminalization] is about giving police and authorities the ability to, instead of charging someone criminally, get them into a program, get them connected with some sort of support or service that can really try to address the substance abuse issue at its root cause," said Bray.

He said being prepared to help people with addictions can be resource-intensive but it's absolutely necessary.

"If a person says 'You know what? I'm ready, I want help,' we need to be able to connect them to help right now," said Bray. "Giving them a card, a phone number, a website link to connect with in the next two to four weeks is not going to do it. … We need to have capacity in the system that we can guarantee them immediate help."

Overdoses in the city 'deeply concerning'

The Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre has been working toward opening an overdose prevention site since October. The Centre is currently looking to hire a primary care paramedic to staff the site.

Michael Parker, executive director of the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre, said the rising number of overdoses in the city is "deeply concerning." He believes the overdose prevention site will serve an important need in the community once it is able to open.

"We certainly receive a lot of inquiries … about when it's going to open, including from our regular clients that we see," said Parker. "In the month of February, we noticed an increase in what would be, by our observation, apparent drug use psychosis and the effects from that."

In March, Regina city council allocated $500,000 from the city's COVID-19 recovery reserve for harm reduction programs in the city.

Parker said these funds will go a long way toward supporting the Friendship Centre's overdose prevention site and other initiatives in the city, but he is looking for greater and more consistent support from all levels of government as overdose numbers continue to climb. 

"Really, we need more," he said. "Long term, there needs to be more attention from the provincial government on the matter. And at this point, we have no commitment from the province around any sort of funding or possibility of funding. And that's something we think needs to be changed."