Cory Cardinal almost became one of the numbers.
He remembers taking a hit, then blackness. If someone had not helped, he suspects the overdose would have killed him.
That was last year. On Wednesday, Cardinal was among the small crowd that gathered near the Prairie Harm Reduction safe consumption site in Saskatoon this week
For many there, the estimated 336 people who died of an overdose in 2020 are not numbers but friends, relatives and neighbours. The operation of such sites can be the difference between of life and death.
“I know for a fact if I had a safe place to go, I wouldn’t be so ashamed of my addiction. And I wouldn’t be out using by myself, using dangerously,” Cardinal said.
Prairie Harm Reduction operates Saskatchewan’s only safe consumption site. It’s located in the Pleasant Hill neighbourhood and is a place where people can use drugs under medical supervision to reduce the rise of overdose, HIV transmission and other associated harms.
It opened without provincial funding in October 2020 and has been exclusively funded by fundraising dollars and donations ever since. It currently operates 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.
PHR has twice asked the provincial government for $1.3 million in funding to run the safe consumption site on a 24/7 basis and twice it’s been snubbed — most recently in this month’s budget. The organization received $900,000 in operating funding for other services it offers, but none to staff the site.
That’sin spite of a record number of people dying of overdoses in Saskatchewan and internal government briefing notes that say such sites are a cost-effective way to prevent fatalities.
“The scientific evidence shows that (safe consumption sites) save lives,” reads a briefing note from November 2019 that the StarPhoenix obtained through freedom of information legislation. Another says every new case of HIV in Saskatchewan costs $1.3 million in lifetime costs — almost exactly what PHR requested to operate the site. Notes say safe consumption sites save money for police, ambulance and health services.
Other notes, though, highlight a “small but vocal minority” of people who oppose the site’s opening as well as the fact that a number of Saskatchewan citizens had written to Premier Scott Moe and other MLAs expressing support for an abstinence-only approach to substance use treatment.
Provincial officials also appeared to fret over whether to put so much funding into one location.
“Given injection drug use is not concentrated in one area of the province, the Ministry would recommend considering alternatives” to PHR’s proposal for a safe consumption site, reads one briefing note from November 2019.
“Distributing harm reduction services across the province, rather than focusing funds on a single site, is another important step in equitable access to supplies that save lives and prevent disease transmission,” reads another note prepared in May 2020.
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Everett Hindley used the same argument after the budget was released this week, saying he wanted to provide services to people “no matter where they live in this province.”
Hindley highlighted other investments government made including mobile vans offering other harm reduction services and an expansion of access to naloxone, which can temporarily reverse opioid overdoses.
PHR received federal approval to operate in the summer of 2019 and later the Saskatchewan government was granted the powers to approve other sites where people can use drugs under medical supervision. It’s used those powers twice — once for COVID-19 self-isolation hotels and again for an overdose prevention site in Regina that has yet to open— but has never given money to those sites.
University of Saskatchewan professor and addictions specialist Dr. Peter Butt thinks safe consumption remains a missing link in how people who use drugs can access help.
“If they can’t cover the whole province, I don’t think it’s reasonable or responsible to remain completely silent on the point ….People are dying, it’s only going to get worse,” Butt said. “It won’t be perfect the first time, but we need to start and include this as part of our continuum of care.”
Of the 262 deaths processed by the coroner’s service in 2020 so far, 113 happened in Regina and 63 in Saskatoon — a trend driven largely by a tide of fentanyl.
Cardinal says it creates a situation where people don’t know what they’re taking, or how strong it is. People who use drugs look out for each other, he said, by watching each other and intervening if someone “goes down.” But it doesn’t always work.
“Fentanyl, it’s like a surprise bag” Cardinal said. “You don’t know. It has different levels of potency. So one is not going to be the same as the next.”
Erica Lee, who helped organize Wednesday’s protest, believes that is changing. She noted how community members rallied to fund PHR’s operations when it was first denied funding, and said she was pleasantly surprised by the number of cars loudly honking their support for protestors as they cruised down 22nd Street.
“We’re reaching a critical mass in Saskatoon and in the province where people realize that harm reduction really does save lives. It’s not a slogan anymore, it’s our reality. There are lives that need to be saved,” Lee said.
It’s an observation borne out by numbers as well. A recent public opinion survey done by the U of S Canadian Hub for Applied and Social Research in Partnership with Postmedia News asked 400 Saskatchewan residents in early March about whether they would support safe consumption sites, assuming they reduced the risk of death and other harms. Seventy-five per cent of respondents said they did.
PHR has kept the site open by selling bunnyhugs, t-shirts and coffee mugs. Executive director Jason Mercredi says that if government doesn’t step up, he hopes the community will.
“Everyone has a breaking point,” Mercredi said. “We’re going to find out what ours is pretty soon.”
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