Regina takes steps towards harm reduction for drug users

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Overdose deaths are policy decisions Colin Davis via Unsplash

Provincial support still lacking

Deaths by drug overdose in Saskatchewan are skyrocketing, but Regina city councilor Andrew Stevens and director of Newo-Yotina Friendship Centre Michael Parker see the first step toward a solution. The first step involves decriminalizing small amounts of any drug in the city.

According to Regina police reports, drug-related deaths have gone up by 380 per cent in 2021 compared to January to July in 2019. In 2019 there were 15 deaths, in 2020 there were 52, and in 2021 there have been 72.

In the coming months, Stevens is hopeful that the city will approve his motion to decriminalize small amounts of drugs. This move comes after the City’s decision in March to devote $500,000 to fund local harm reduction efforts. The grant program was officially launched in June 2021.

Stevens believes that the decriminalization of drugs is the first step to the crisis because it can start to destigmatize the use of illicit drugs and start to change the narrative from a criminal problem to a health problem. He said, “I don’t want to treat decriminalization as […] a silver bullet, it’s not, but it needs to be part of a bigger program.”

Stevens also acknowledged the success of similar programs in places like Portugal or in Vancouver, where they are actively destigmatizing the use of narcotics.

In Stevens’ eyes, sending people to prison or penalizing them for possessing drugs doesn’t solve anything. He said, “we just don’t see it being effective when you chuck people in jail, and then by proxy, you have all sorts of other effects in terms of the criminalization of Indigenous people and racial minorities.”

When asked about not having the financial support of the province, Stevens said, “I suspect it’s more of an ideological problem when it comes to, ‘can we commit money? Can we officially endorse the consumption of what are still illegal narcotics?’ And that comes back to the decriminalization. I think the answer they’ve demonstrated is, no.”

The $500,000 comes from leftover federal and provincial money that was given to the city last year to help with COVID-19. Stevens spoke on how there is a possible relation between COVID-19 and the increasing numbers of overdoses, or at least to some degree, and putting money towards that would be an appropriate cause.

“At the provincial level, we have nowhere else to point to, this is entirely your jurisdiction, you are the providers of public health and if this is a public health issue, this is completely your responsibility. You can’t blame the federal government.” said Stevens. The federal government has stated that they support safe injection sites, but ultimately it is not their jurisdiction. They have also created effective pathways for municipalities and community organizations on how to get safe consumption sites up and running.

Parker, the Friendship Centre’s Director, has similar thoughts. He’s hopeful that the centre’s application for money will get accepted so they can make sure operations in the harm reduction section of the facility run smoothly. Parker says that the money will go towards keeping the centre going from October 2021 until December 2022. The centre also put in a request to expand their hours during evenings and weekends.

At the Friendship Centre, which is located on Eleventh Avenue in Regina’s downtown, they offer a number of services, but an area that they have seen the largest increase in demand is their supervised safe consumption service. Parker said “we’re starting to see ten plus people a day to come and access the service.” Parker added that the centre has seen a steady increase in clients since they first opened.

The number of people accessing the safe consumption site is up from earlier this year in May, where they were seeing around one to four people a day.

On site, at some points, the centre has run out of certain life-saving products like Naloxone kits or replacement kits, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Although, they still have a paramedic on site who can provide minor first aid to anybody there.

When asked about what role the police have to play in opioid crisis, Parker had mixed feelings. Parker thinks the Regina police service have been very supportive towards harm reduction. He said, “there have been less charges for minor substance possession because really cracking down on the end user doesn’t really help that individual, nor does it really change anything for the community. So, their focus is shifted to focusing on people who are distributing or selling illegal substances.”

Parker says he sees the shift in police identifying drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one. Even the police know they are not best suited for the problem at hand. “In that case, the Regina police kind of overall recognize that they’re not the ones best suited to respond to the overdose crisis,” said Parker.

Another way the police help when on site is by administering certain first aid. Parker said, “their reports talk about the number of times that they’ve used Naloxone because they’re part of the first responders, right, so if they show up first and somebody’s overdosed, they’re using Naloxone to help revive people.”

Like Stevens, Parker feels like politics play into them not getting proper funding. He finds it especially strange because the provincial government will voice their support, but not put their money where their mouth is. Parker said, “there is a billboard a block away […] from the centre here, that is part of an advertising campaign that the government is funding. Its [a] government advertising campaign about overdose awareness.” The government also provides the centre with various supplies like clean needles, pipes, and Naloxone kits.

Parker used an analogy of the situation with the province and said, “so they say, ‘we’re going to give you 1000 burgers, and we want you to feed 1000 people, we’re going to advertise that you’re doing this, we’re going to give you the meat, but you got to provide the buns, you’ve got to provide qualified cooks, prepare it right, and you have to meet our standards as well, but you’ve got to pay them, you’ve got to provide all the condiments and everything else that goes with it.’”

Overall, Parker is frustrated that the government won’t fully support them, even though they fully recognize the issue at hand. He’s also confused because a service like the Newo-Yotina Friendship Centre or Prairie Harm Reduction lower costs and saves the province money in the long run.

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