Sask. to provide crack and crystal meth pipes at harm reduction centres

The overarching goal is reducing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C through used needles.

Province is getting ready to equip needle exchange sites with safer inhalation supplies

The safe inhalation kits in Thunder Bay feature a wooden dowel, glass pipe, mouthpiece, pipe screens, and a leaflet highlighting safe crack smoking tips. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

The province plans to provide clean pipes to people at existing needle exchanges throughout Saskatchewan. 

It's a move meant to help injection drug users transition away from the needle to the safer alternative of smoking or to stop people from injecting in the first place, with an overarching goal of reducing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C through used needles.

People will be receptive to the pipes and accessories once they are available, said Jason Mercredi, who is the executive director of AIDS Saskatoon.

"Drug users are very economical people, so if the only free tool to use the drugs is needles they're going to use needles." 

Mercredi said the most common drug in the province is crystal meth, followed by crack-cocaine. 

People who regularly use can go through multiple needles a day, or share them, but the same pipe can be smoked over and over again.

Mercredi is hopeful the safer supplies will help the province get a handle on the "HIV epidemic that Saskatchewan has been facing for the last decade."

We are still playing catch up, not only in terms of HIV, but also in terms of opioid related deaths and some of the chaos caused by methamphetamine.- Dr. Peter Butt

The supply of clean pipes will also target makeshift pipes that could be made from glass bottles and aluminum.

These can cause cuts, blisters or open sores which can in turn lead to the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C if shared, according to the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA).  

The expansion in services also allows staff at the harm reduction sites to better connect with drug users and provide education and further resources. 

Jason Mercredi, the executive director of AIDS Saskatoon, said harm reduction services are cost effective, compared to a single HIV infection which would cost $1.2M over the lifetime of one person. (Alicia Bridges/CBC)

The push for this came directly from people who use drugs and advocated for access to safer supplies, he said. 

Mercredi had advocated for the initiative on their behalf and said he is pleasantly surprised it's being implemented. 

"This year has been a big year for Saskatchewan in harm reduction," he said, pointing to universal coverage for HIV and Hepatits C, as well as naloxone programs.

"We're excited to carry on this momentum forward."

Province only catching up: expert

The move to provide pipes is progressive, but only one part of a solution, said Dr. Peter Butt, an addictions expert in Saskatchewan. 

"We are still playing catch up, not only in terms of HIV but also in terms of opioid related deaths and some of the chaos caused by methamphetamine," he said. 

"This is one strategy in an array of strategies that need to be implemented in order to scale up our system." 

The rates of IV drug users are high for both opioids and stimulants, he said, which is reflected by extremely high HIV rates. The majority of HIV cases in the province are contracted through that drug use. 

Dr. Peter Butt said about 70 per cent of people contracting HIV in the province are doing so through IV drug use. (CBC)

Butt said that to lower the addiction rates, the province needs a range of physical and mental health strategies that focus on prevention, outreach and improved access to services.

​"Ultimately the goal is to help people ​achieve a life in recovery."

The SHA said seven other provinces have safer inhalation supplies at their harm reduction centres. It says the tools will be available in province in the next few months, once staff are fully trained about the new supplies. 

They are expected to be available at 26 fixed and three mobile harm reduction sites.