Med students push Sask. gov't to fund supervised drug consumption site

Medical students are calling on the Saskatchewan government to financially support the supervised drug consumption site in Saskatoon. Their advocacy is backed by several high-profile professionals and organizations within the medical community.

Several medical professionals, organizations support students' call to action

Members of the Students for Harm Reduction and Informed Policy at the University of Saskatchewan's college of medicine are calling on the government to financially support the supervised consumption site in Saskatoon. Pictured, from left to right, are Alyx Orieux, Erin Tilk, Ryan Krochak and Lindsay Balezantis. (Submitted by Ryan Krochak)

Saskatchewan medical students are calling on the province to financially support Saskatoon's supervised drug consumption site. 

For three years in a row, the province has denied Prairie Harm Reduction's (PHR) request for funding assistance amid a ballooning overdose crisis.

The students have penned an open letter to the province, and they're backed by top professionals and organizations in the medical community.   

"The medical community sees the benefits of safe consumption sites. We just need the government to see it as well,"  said Ryan Krochak, incoming president of the Students for Harm Reduction and Informed Policy (SHRIP) group from the University of Saskatchewan's college of medicine.

The open letter lays out what supervised consumption sites are, how a supervised consumption site addresses multiple health crises underway in Saskatchewan and other benefits. 

PHR does not provide drugs to people, rather it provides a space where people can use drugs under medical supervision, check drugs for laced substances, access sterile equipment — which can prevent disease transmission — and get connected with support services.

The site is open, but it's operating via fundraising, donations and merchandise sales, so it has limited hours. Staff requested $1.3 million from the province to run the site 24-7.

Read SHRIP's open letter:

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The students started working on the letter, and seeking endorsements for it, after the budget was released last month. Krochak said it's obvious from a medical perspective why the site should be supported, as it reduces overdoses and disease transmission.

"People are dying in Saskatchewan. We have the highest rate of HIV in the country. We have the second highest rate of hepatitis C in the country. Our health-care systems are incredibly overwhelmed," Krochak said. "Safe consumption sites can provide an opportunity to take a huge strain off our health-care system."

Much of the data the students used in the letter came from the government's own reports. 

"We're citing Ministry of Health reports to the minister of health. We are citing the Drug Task Force report back to the minister of mental health and addictions," Krochak said.  "The government knows that these programs will save lives and save money."

The students advocated to the government on behalf of the site prior to the budget and they'll be back at the Legislature again on Monday, continuing to push for harm reduction funding. 

Prairie Harm Reduction says Saskatchewan is dealing with Canada's highest HIV rates, largely fueled by injection drug use. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

Overdose fatalities keep climbing

During the last three years, the number of fatal overdoses in the province has soared. There were 446 people suspected to have died from overdose in 2021, with 137 of the 446 still under investigation by Saskatchewan Coroners Service. That's an increase from 327 deaths linked to drug toxicity in 2020 and 179 confirmed deaths in 2019.

Preliminary numbers show seven people have died and 114 more are suspected to have died from drugs in the first three months of 2022. 

There has not been a fatal overdose in Prairie Harm Reduction's site, despite people having used substances there thehundreds of times.

On budget day last month, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Everett Hindley defended the government's decision to deny the site's request. He said the government provides money to PHR for other areas of programming, and said the government is choosing to provide "broader support" across Saskatchewan rather than fund this specific site. 

Krochak said the students aren't discounting the number of overdoses happening in other locations. They believe the government should increase support in those areas, too. However, they said the hundreds of people accessing the PHR consumption site should be directly supported by government. 

"[PHR] is in an area of the city where there are a lot of people who use substances who access it," said SHRIP member Alyx Orieux. "We're trying to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people and there's no one thing that can reach every single person."

The students are hopeful their points will resonate with the wider community.

"We're passionate about the humanitarian reasons and the medical reasons that harm reduction is so important, but we've also spent some time outlining the economic reasons and how safe consumption sites are saving money," said SHRIP member Lindsay Balezantis.

Fellow SHRIP member Erin Tilk added that they understand they're playing "the long game" with their advocacy.

"Even if we can't change the minds of the officials who are in power right now, maybe we can sway the public opinion a little bit more and look at changing things that way."