A look inside Saskatchewan's first-ever supervised injection site

People who have a stake in the neighbourhood that will host Saskatchewan's first-ever supervised consumption site are speaking as the group that will run it gives the public an idea of what's coming.

AIDS Saskatoon is transitioning into a new space while preparing to open the drug injection site

The metal cubicles behind Jason Mercredi are where people can inject, consume or snort their drugs once the site opens. The desk nearby will be where people can discard their drug supplies. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

Looking around what will be Saskatchewan's first-ever supervised injection site, Jason Mercredi points out the seven stainless steel cubicles where people will inject, snort or otherwise consume their drugs, and a separate, closed room where they will smoke their drugs. 

Mercredi is the executive director of AIDS Saskatoon, a group that has spearheaded the injection site from its inception.

The site is fully constructed with federal approval to operate and AIDS Saskatoon is awaiting possible provincial budget funds for hiring and training staff. If approved, Mercredi says the site will open as early as the end of May.

When the doors open later this year, drug users will first walk into a small intake room where a worker will note what type of drug the person is planning to use.

"They come in, they take a seat, they get assigned a number and then when their number gets called, they enter into the consumption side," Mercredi said.

When the person is done, the table is wiped down and another person gets called in. Air intake ducts above each of the booths ensure fresh air is constantly cycling through.

A separate room with windows that give a full view inside is for people who are smoking their drugs. The air intake ducts in that room are stronger than the ones above the cubicles, allowing for air in the room to be more rapidly cycled out.

The room for people who are smoking drugs is visible from all angles of the main area, and has safeguards for rapid air exchange in case someone overdoses inside and needs treatment. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

Paramedics will be on staff in case someone overdoses and needs help.

The exit takes people through the AIDS Saskatoon drop-in centre, which offers intensive family supports, housing support, education on harm reduction, as well as a place to sit, warm up, and grab a coffee or food.

The idea is that people will know that those services are available and accessible, Mercredi says.

The front entrance of the site faces 20th Street West, a well-travelled route both by foot and vehicle in Saskatoon's Pleasant Hill neighbourhood.

"We want to make sure that we normalize the service but it also is easy to access," Mercredi said.

The front of the building features a prominent mural of a Naloxone kit, used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Mercredi says the mural is in response to the 40 or 50 overdoses per week that police and paramedics are responding to in the city.

"We see that these people are hurting. We see that these people are dying and we're going to try to get them stabilized ... and making no apologies for the fact that these people have a right to life," he said. The shirt he's wearing has a naloxone graphic on it, too.

"I'm not going to get into a moral debate on whether these people should be able to live or not. Dead people can't recover."

AIDS Saskatoon intentionally made the entrance to the drug consumption site street-facing. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC News)

Since AIDS Saskatoon moved to the new location in November, it has seen daily drop-ins rise from 70 up to 150.

The building used to house the Pleasant Hill Bakery and is one block away from St. Paul's Hospital. A community clinic with a dental office and pharmacy is next door and Saskatoon Tribal Council Health Centre, which has a needle exchange, is on the other side.

Mercredi says having this many services in the same area is a good thing but some business owners disagree.

Randy Pshebylo, the executive director of the Riversdale Business Improvement District, says the location of the site is a concern for businesses in Riversdale, the neighbourhood that is further east on 20th Street.

"If it was located perhaps in a district where there isn't a cohesive group of people trying to make positive change for some of the business climate and restoring the commercial activity to the street, that would be better received than placing it here," Pshebylo said.

Creating a safe space

Mercredi says AIDS Saskatoon is making a concerted effort to give people who do drugs a sense of ownership over the space so they feel safe and comfortable staying in the area, which is why the back alley will have lighting and picnic tables.

Angella McKay uses most of AIDS Saskatoon's services and says the injection site is a "step forward for Saskatchewan" to move away from shunning addicts.

"I think that we are very much behind the rest of the world in terms of providing help that is needed for people who are suffering from addictions," she said.

From the perspective of a police officer it's a very strange position to be in.- Insp. Cameron McBride, Saskatoon Police

The alley behind the AIDS Saskatoon building where she's standing was once full of litter, old needles and was a hub for nuisance complaints.

The needle issue is all but dealt with since AIDS Saskatoon hired Okihtcitawak Patrol Group to clean up needles after it moved into the space from its old location in Mayfair in November. The nuisance complaints have dried up too, said Saskatoon police Insp. Cameron McBride, although he added that he'll be looking to see if that remains the case in spring once the weather improves.

Eight new community mobilization officers were approved to patrol the area in the latest city budget but they haven't started yet.

A police perspective

Insp. McBride said while the site isn't open yet, he was able to mentally prepare himself for when it does while touring 12 supervised consumption sites across the country.

"I stood amongst people who were in the act of consuming illegal drugs and I have to say, from the perspective of a police officer it's a very strange position to be in," he said.

He said witnessing drug use and not acting "is just contrary to every exposure we have as police officers" but that he has come to understand that people use these sites because it's their opportunity to have a safer, longer life.