Opinion: Government must seriously consider funding harm reduction

Saskatchewan recorded 464 confirmed of suspected deaths due to drug toxicity in 2021, an increase of 167 from 2020.

Kelsey Langston 2 minute read April 27, 2022

The new safe consumption site Prairie Harm Reduction is seen in Saskatoon, Sask., on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kayle Neis Kayle Neis / The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan is setting record numbers when it comes to drug toxicity deaths, and they’re not records we should be proud of.

There was a total of 464 confirmed or suspected drug toxicity deaths in 2021 which is 137 more deaths than the previous record-setting year in 2020.

Premier Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party have shown little commitment to funding harm reduction services in the province. Some organizations that provide harm reduction services are undeterred by their lack of inclusion in the 2022-23 provincial budget.

Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR), a non-profit organization in Saskatoon which opened Saskatchewan’s first safe consumption site, has been denied funding in the budget for a third year in a row.

Further, the temporary overdose prevention site at Newo Yotina Friendship Centre in Regina has yet to see provincial funding. Refusal to fund innovative and evidence-based harm reduction programs, such as safe consumption sites, can lead to people who use drugs paying the ultimate price: Their lives.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Everett Hindley has continuously defended the decision to withhold funding for PHR to operate its safe consumption site.

Following the release of the 2022-23 budget, Hindley stated that they already fund other programming at PHR and that overdoses are not limited to the area where the site is located.

This comment seems to ignore the fact that approximately 500 people accessed their safe consumption site — exceeding 3,500 times combined — in 2021.

Hindley spoke to CTV News in early March stating that the government has “been looking at safe consumption sites just as we would any of these other recommendations or suggestions.”

Heading into April, the Saskatchewan Coroner’s Service had reported 114 suspected overdose or drug toxicity deaths, an average of more than one person — one life — per day.

In order to prevent additional unnecessary and premature deaths, it’s imperative that we re-examine our approaches to treatment and harm reduction.

We must invest more into publicly accessible safe consumption sites to reduce harm, expand access to treatment services and improve housing opportunities for those struggling with substance use. It’s time that Saskatchewan treats this human crisis with the urgency and attention it deserves.

Kelsey Langston is a student in sociology and social work at the University of Regina.

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