REGINA - It’s getting to be an annual tradition under the Sask Party government: every year the budget comes out, and no funding is included for safe consumption sites.
Public funding for safe consumption sites such as Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon were again missing from the 2023-24 budget delivered last Wednesday by Finance Minister Donna Harpauer.
The issue was raised at the Legislature on Monday, as recorded in Hansard. Opposition Health Critic Vicki Mowat grilled Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Everett Hindley on why funding was excluded again.
Ms. Mowat: — “…This tired and out-of-touch government isn’t listening to nurses when it comes to the crisis in our ERs [emergency room], and they’re not listening to the evidence when it comes to harm reduction and safe consumption sites. Safe consumption sites save lives and they save money for the government in the long run with reduced ER costs, but this government has refused to listen for years and refused to provide support last week in the spring budget.
“With all the evidence in front of him, why didn’t the minister fund safe consumption sites in last week’s budget?”
Hon. Mr. Hindley: — “… Mr. Speaker, this government is focused on treatment and prevention as well as long-term recovery for those that are struggling with addictions. It’s why in the budget, the year that is about to wrap up, that we have dollars committed toward the expansion of more treatment and recovery beds and spaces here in this province, the first of which, 14 post-treatment beds, were announced in Estevan a couple of weeks ago.
“And, Mr. Speaker, that coupled with a number of other harm reduction initiatives that we are doing across this province, tied specifically towards treatment and recovery, is something that we’ll continue to focus on to provide that much-needed care for people in this province. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.”
Ms. Mowat: — “It’s really disappointing to hear no answer from that minister. Let the record show that he did not answer that question.”
Mowat then noted that medical students were on hand at the Legislature to call on the government to fund intranasal naloxone and to make it available throughout the community.
“It delivers more naloxone, it lasts longer, and it’s easier to administer. It would be a major step forward in reducing overdoses in our province,” said Mowat.
Hindley responded the government was “currently embarking on a pilot project with intranasal naloxone, which we are monitoring very carefully in terms of its efficacy.”
The minister noted that since the take-home naloxone program started in this province a number of years ago, “we’ve had over 44,000 kits that have been distributed, 12,000 in the year 2022-23. Thirty-one thousand people have completed training, and a number of those continue to happen across this province.”
He also said the budget of the year wrapping up had $200,000 to expand the take-home naloxone program into more pharmacies and more communities to make it more readily available.
The government’s focus in the budget on what Hindley referred to as a “treatment and recovery” approach, as he described it to reporters last week, has been a sore point for those wanting to see public funding for supervised safe consumption sites to address the overdose situation in the province. According to the latest Saskatchewan Coroners Service report on drug toxicity deaths, there were 245 confirmed drug toxicity deaths and 159 suspected drug toxicity deaths in 2022.
Last week, Hindley told reporters that the data pointed to the overdoses happening "overwhelmingly in private residences" and also noted there was opposition, pointing out the chief of Saskatoon Tribal Council, Mark Arcand, did not support safe consumption sites. "That's an example of how difficult an issue this is," Hindley said.
In speaking to reporters Monday following Question Period, Ryan Krochak, Regina president for Students for Harm Reduction and Informed Policy and a second-year University of Saskatchewan medical student, said “substance abuse affects every single area of medicine, at a time when our emergency departments are being put on bypass.”
He made the point to reporters in the rotunda that preventative measures were needed.
“Right now we need upstream investments to be preventing overdoses in our province. We need to transition from a reactive measure to a proactive measure.”
Krochak said his group wanted to see publicly funded safe consumption sites in the province. “We need to be preventing overdoses and realistically, to holistically deal with some of these issues, we need to be looking at safe consumption sites, probably safe supply, drug decriminalization. These are things that were identified in the Saskatchewan Drug Task Force report that came out last year just before the budget release.”
He also said that to address the drug toxicity deaths, they needed to look at addressing rates of homelessness, poverty, food, insecurity, and mental health concerns.
Krochak applauded the government for the investment in detox beds, but pointed to a need for continuum of care.
“Right now with the reality of how potent fentanyl is in our communities, people are dying before they are able to, or ready to, access the services that the government is funding. We have huge gaps in care, and we just need a continuum.”
Krochak said that while he welcomed the investment in detox, “really we just need to be preventing another year of record overdoses in Saskatchewan. Supports are just not reaching those who need it most right now.”
Krochak also spoke about the Naloxone nasal spray. He said his group was advocating for publicly funded nasal naloxone because “if the government isn’t funding safe consumption sites, we need a stopgap.”
He held up one of those sprays and pointed out the ease of use, calling it much easier to administer and more compact. He wanted to see those be more readily available.
Right now, naloxone is commonly administered through injections as a way to reverse an opioid overdose.
Krochak pointed out internasal naloxone is ten times the dose of a vial. He pointed to estimates that one nasal spray is the equivalent of five injections, and said the higher concentration will prevent rebound overdoses and give someone more time to access health care.
Krochak also confirmed his group has a meeting set up with Minister Hindley next Tuesday. He said a range of investments need to happen and that ministries and various levels of government need to work together.
“Time is now, let’s work together. Let’s work together, let’s have this meeting.”