Sask. government again declines to support supervised consumption site in budget

Saskatchewan's government left the province's only supervised consumption site out of the budget — again.

Prairie Harm Reduction sought $1.3M to staff 24/7 safe consumption site

Jason Mercredi said it would have been a signal of hope amid a dark addictions crisis if the Saskatchewan government decided to financially support Saskatoon's supervised consumption site. The province did not provide the requested support. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

Saskatchewan's government has once again declined to support the province's only supervised drug consumption site. 

Jason Mercredi, executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR) in Saskatoon, said that sends a bleak signal to people living with addictions and those trying to help them.

The decision comes as the province grapples with unprecedented rates of drug-related deaths. 

"It sends a clear message that this government is very, very comfortable with the amount of people that have died," Mercredi said. "They're doing absolutely nothing to stop overdose deaths. It's really concerning." 

The province dedicated one per cent of the Ministry of Health budget toward tackling addictions in the 2021-22 budget tabled Tuesday. 

PHR operates a supervised consumption site in Saskatoon using a budget obtained via fundraising to pay its only paramedic. The site is only one part of the non-profit, which offers a long list of services for people living with addictions, homelessness and trauma in the city's core.

Mercredi said PHR applied for $1.3 million in government funding so it could expand hours and hire more staff. 

"$1.3 million is a tiny amount for a health-care facility to operate 24/7, 365 days a year," he said, noting the evidence to support the site exists. "With the amount of people that are dying in Saskatchewan, it's even harder to argue against. ... The current approach clearly doesn't work." 

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press and released Tuesday show the province has not been swayed by evidence that showed supervised consumption sites save lives and money without risking public safety.

Government officials had that knowledge last year — before they declined to assist the supervised consumption site for the first time in last year's budget. 

Saskatchewan's Minister of Mental Health and Addictions ​Everett Hindley, when asked Tuesday why the government wouldn't fund the site, said the government chose to direct money toward broad programs across the province as it worked with 'limited dollars.'

Hindley said he disagreed with the premise that overdose deaths were worse in Saskatoon than other communities. He listed the communities of Swift Current, Estevan, Weyburn, Yorkton, Prince Albert and North Battleford. 

According to Saskatchewan's Coroners Service, these six communities had a combined total of 18 drug toxicity deaths reported for 2020, less than half of Saskatoon's 56 confirmed drug toxicity deaths. Only Regina was higher than Saskatoon, with 103 reported overdose deaths in 2020.

"We've been told that we're not out of the running for next year," Mercredi said. "Great. What are we supposed to do with the 400 people that have died in the last 14 months?" 

Official opposition leader Ryan Meili slammed the government's decision to dismiss the harm reduction findings and choose, again, not to support the PHR site. 

"It's all about ideology instead of about caring enough to get people off drugs and save lives.," Meili said. ​

Finance Minister Donna Harpauer said PHR did receive some funding from the government's health and social services ministries, even though the supervised consumption site was left out again.

The government said 7.5 per cent of the health budget will go toward mental health and addictions, including "youth focused initiatives," suicide prevention and harm reduction services. It listed an additional $2.6 million for expanded harm reduction services in the 2021-22 budget, including: 

  •  $750,000 to establish and equip three buses that will be based out of Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert to provide mobile harm reduction services.
  •  $440,000 to improve access to harm reduction supplies, including an expansion of the Take Home Naloxone Program.
  • $250,000 to address increased need for addiction services as a result of COVID-19 impacts.
  • $240,000 for supports for high risk expectant mothers.
  •  $70,000 toward an addictions medicine training program for physicians.

A spokesperson for the ministry of Health indicated sait the finer details of these spending promises have not yet been worked out. They would not clarify if Regina would be getting an additional mobile harm reduction vehicle in addition to the existing one, or where the mobile unit would operate in Saskatoon. 

"The details for the mobile harm reduction services and locations will be finalized in the near future in collaboration with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and our other partners to ensure that the services offered through this new investment complement and expand upon existing services," said an email from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health media desk. 

The spokesperson also said the government has not yet determined how many additional Naloxone kits will be distributed to pharmacies throughout the province or how the $250,000 set "to address increased need for addiction services as a result of COVID-19 impacts" will be spent. 

Prairie Harm Reduction is a non-profit organization in Saskatoon, a sort of community centre offering services to vulnerable people. By the time Jason Mercredi became executive director in 2016, he had seen 120 clients die. There have been more deaths since then, and Jason predicts more to come, now that the opioid overdose crisis has settled into Saskatchewan. That's why Jason and his team worked so hard to open the province's first supervised consumption site last fall — and fought like hell when their funding fell though. 33:13

The government indicated it plans to pay for more awareness campaigns about addictions and mental health. Mercredi said the time for investing in awareness campaigns and mobile needle exchange programs was years ago. He said the budget only emphasized the government's approach to the fatal addictions crisis, an approach he said clearly isn't working. 

Mercredi said he's once again frustrated by lack of action. He estimates he spends 70 per cent of his time at work working on fundraising for the consumption site. He said that time would be better spent on other programs that target addictions and trauma.

For now, he said, they have no choice but to continue.

"What else can we do other than keep fundraising and trying to stop people from dying?" He said. "What else are we to do other than to mobilize the community and try to get people on board? More businesses, more public support. And that is sadly getting easier because more people are dying."