Provincial strategy for overdoses needed, frontline services say

Organizations on the front lines of Saskatchewan's overdose crisis say the time has come for a unified provincial strategy.

Zak Vescera 4 minute read March 23, 2022

The Saskatoon Tribal Council’s health centre handed out a staggering 1.5 million needles in 2021.

That year, more than 440 people are believed to have died of overdose. Another 28 near-death incidents happened within feet of the centre’s back door on 20th Street West in Saskatoon, only to be reversed by staff. 

For the people living through the crisis, those are anything but statistics.

“You get to know them for the person they are, not other peoples’ perception of that client,” said harm reduction worker Crystal Servetnyk.

“When you see them out there, and they’re blue, it hits home.”

Crystal Servetnyk, a harm reduction worker at the STC Health Centre shows some of the equipment they provide for the community. Matt Smith / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Organizations on the front lines of Saskatchewan’s burgeoning overdose crisis say the time has come for a unified provincial strategy.

Earlier this month, the province said its drug task force would develop a plan based on priorities identified in a wide range of consultations that found myriad gaps in the network of supports for people who use drugs.

“We’ve been saying for years that our province needs a drug strategy that can support people in a way that we’re preventing overdose,” Prairie Harm Reduction executive director Kayla DeMong said, noting that it needs to go beyond the big cities.

Prairie Harm Reduction’s new executive director Kayla DeMong. Michelle Berg / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

“The people in rural areas are screaming for help because they have no resources.”

At the STC health centre, manager Ashley Burrows said some clients drive hours to pick up needles, pipes and other supplies. The centre serves 250 people a day; the vast majority of the needles it provides are returned under an exchange program. If anything, its hours should be expanded, she said.

“The hours that they’re open, clients aren’t awake. So we see that once lunchtime hits, we see lots and lots of people in a short amount of time.”

Mona Daniels, left, and Zoey Petit wrap ampules of sterile water at the STC Health Centre in Saskatoon. Matt Smith / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

She said many clients have just been released from prison or hospital, often with few supports.

“Really, we’re never going to get anywhere if we can’t support the root causes.”

The provincial coroner estimates 446 people died of overdose in 2021, the highest ever and more than double the 2019 toll.

The STC Health Centre distributes many supplies to the surrounding community, including clean syringes. Matt Smith / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

That has been driven largely by the exploding prevalence of fentanyl in the street drug supply, sometimes as a contaminant. The latest deadly combination is purple or blue fentanyl that actually contains benzodiazepines.

STC and PHR are proponents for a drug alert system to warn users and allied organizations about tainted drugs.

Some problems go beyond the supply. STC addictions counsellor Charles McKay said people who use drugs struggle to find and keep housing, in part because of mental health problems and substance use.

“A lot of people we deal with here are pretty much homeless. When you house them, that mental illness, that concurrent disorder, can become a gap in itself,” MacKay said.

Charles McKay is an addictions counsellor at the STC Health Centre. Matt Smith / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Client navigator Amanda Adrian said changes to Saskatchewan’s income support program pushed many clients deeper into poverty, and meeting the basic needs of life is key to solving underlying problems.

“If you have the right supports in place for these individuals, there’s a lot of times you can eliminate the problems before they exist,” she said.

At PHR, peer worker Delbert Paintednose said he’s lost too many friends to overdose and is glad more people are using the non-profit’s supervised drug consumption site.

“They know it’s safe. They know if something happens, there’s someone here who is trained to help them.”

Delbert Paintednose said he has been to too many funerals of friends who died of overdose. Matt Smith / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

PHR, which sits next to the STC’s health centre, has twice unsuccessfully lobbied for provincial money for its supervised drug consumption site, the only permanent one in the province. The minister of mental health and addiction’s own briefing notes say the sites save lives and money.

If PHR doesn’t receive support for its site in Wednesday’s budget, DeMong said it will rely on donations and sales of merchandise — including bunnyhugs, T-shirts and beach towels — to keep the doors open.

“I really don’t know. I will be sitting on the edge my seat waiting to see what happens,” she said.

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