AIDS Saskatoon planning to open Saskatchewan's first safe injection site this fall

No drugs will be banned at Saskatchewan’s first safe injection site, according to the executive director of the group that plans to have the facility running in Saskatoon by the fall.

Facility to be in Pleasant Hill neighbourhood

AIDS Saskatoon executive director Jason Mercredi prepares a needle exchange kit at the group's current office on 33rd Street. He said the deregulation of Naloxone has also been a big help to reduce overdose deaths in the city. (Don Somers/CBC)

No drugs will be banned at Saskatchewan's first safe injection site, according to the executive director of the group that plans to have the facility running in Saskatoon by the fall.

"You have to leave it open to all drugs to make sure that … we're not limiting people and isolating them. The point of these facilities is to make it so that people can come engage with services," said AIDS Saskatoon Executive Director Jason Mercredi.

The proposed location for the safe injection site is in an old bakery in the Pleasant Hill neighbourhood. It was chosen because of its proximity to services that people with substance abuse issues and addictions are already accessing at the Westside Community Clinic and Saskatoon Tribal Council's health centre and needle exchange. 

We kind of deal with the nitty gritty stuff that people don't really want to address in society, but we know it's needed.- AIDS Saskatoon Executive Director Jason Mercredi

The plan to seek federal approval for what's officially called a "safe consumption site" has been in the works for two years. The application, which requests an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, is set to be filed in April.

Community consultation is a part of the process. Mercredi is already well aware of public resistance to safe injection sites.

"This is not a popular program and we realize that ... We kind of deal with the nitty gritty stuff that people don't really want to address in society, but we know it's needed," he said.

To accommodate people's concerns, the site will have a community safety advisory board to advise on community safety aspects of the site. Numerous community groups, including Saskatoon Police, have been invited.

The biggest aim is to stop overdoses, but the secondary aim is to set people up with supports so they can access healthcare and recover from their addictions, he said.

Mercredi has visited different injection sites in Alberta and said it's important to note that health professionals like primary care paramedics will be on site — it's not just a free-for-all place for people to do drugs.

"Would you rather have them used in a facility that's managed and operated according to the strictest codes and strictest policies," he said, "Or would you have them out rather have them using public washrooms, public parks, alleyways and wandering the streets?"

Calls for site come from drug users

Mercredi said a safe injection site was the top request from drug users that AIDS Saskatoon consulted.

City approval is not needed because the building is already zoned for medical purposes, Mercredi said.

The federal approval process could take between two to four months and doesn't require provincial approval either, he said.

Mercredi said an appetite is there: a petition started in the fall for a safe injection site has received more than 1,500 signatures from Saskatoon residents.

'There's people's lives at stake'

Mercedi said a lot of people AIDS Saskatoon works with have died due to overdoses and health complications from infections due to using dirty needles in recent years. He said it gives him the chills to imagine someone being able to come to a safe, clinical environment.

"We're excited to see how this plays out. But we're also nervous because you know this is there's people's lives at stake and we want to make sure that we're getting this right," Mercredi said.

Mercredi said we can't police our way out of this, pointing to recent manslaughter charges being laid in the deaths of four people due to what police say was cocaine laced with fentanyl.


Chelsea Laskowski is a web writer with CBC Saskatoon.


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