Saskatchewan medical students are calling on the province to financially support the Saskatoon supervised drug consumption site.
For three straight years, the province has denied the Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR) request for financial assistance amid a burgeoning overdose crisis.
The students wrote an open letter to the province and they are supported by top professionals and organizations in the medical community.
“The medical community sees the benefits of safe consumption sites. We just need the government to see it too,” said Ryan Krochak, incoming chair of the Students for Harm Reduction and Informed Policy (SHRIP) group at the University of Saskatchewan College of Science. Medication.
The open letter outlines what supervised consumption sites are, how a supervised consumption site addresses the multiple ongoing health crises in Saskatchewan, and other benefits.
PHR does not provide drugs to people, but rather provides a space where people can use drugs under medical supervision, check drugs for laced substances, access sterile equipment – which can prevent disease transmission – and connect with support services.
The site is open, but it operates through fundraisers, donations, and merchandise sales, so it has limited hours. Staff requested $1.3 million from the province to keep the site running 24/7.
Read the open letter from SHRIP:
The students began working on the letter and seeking approvals after the budget was released last month. Krochak said it is medically obvious why the site should be supported, as it reduces overdoses and disease transmission.
“People are dying in Saskatchewan. We have the highest HIV rate in the country. We have the second highest hepatitis C rate in the country. Our health care systems are incredibly overwhelmed,” Krochak said. “Safe consumption sites can offer an opportunity to greatly relieve our health care system.”
Much of the data the students used in the letter came from the government’s own reports.
“We quote the reports of the Ministry of Health to the Minister of Health. We quote the Drug Task Force Report to the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions,” Krochak said. “The government knows these programs will save lives and money.
The students advocated with the government on behalf of the site before the budget and they will return to the Legislative Assembly on Monday, continuing to push for funding for harm reduction.
Overdose deaths continue to rise
Over the past three years, the number of fatal overdoses in the province has skyrocketed. There were 446 people believed to have died of overdoses in 2021, with 137 of the 446 still under investigation by the Saskatchewan Coroners Service. It is an increase of 327 drug toxicity deaths in 2020 and 179 confirmed deaths in 2019.
Preliminary figures show seven people have died and another 114 are believed to have died from drugs in the first three months of 2022.
There have been no fatal overdoses at the Prairie Harm Reduction site, although people have used substances there hundreds of times.
Last month on Budget Day, Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Everett Hindley defended the government’s decision to deny the site’s application. He said the government provides money to PHR for other areas of programming, and said the government is choosing to provide “broader support” across Saskatchewan rather than fund this specific site.
Krochak said the students don’t overlook the number of overdoses happening in other places. They believe that the government should also increase its support in these areas. However, they said the hundreds of people accessing the PHR consumer site should be directly supported by the government.
“[PHR] is in an area of town where there are a lot of people who use substances who have access to it,” said SHRIP member Alyx Orieux. “We try to do as much good as possible for as many people as possible and there is no one thing that can reach every person.”
The students hope their points will resonate with the wider community.
“We are passionate about the humanitarian reasons and the medical reasons why risk reduction is so important, but we have also spent time describing the economic reasons and how safe consumption sites save money” said SHRIP member Lindsay Balezantis.
Fellow SHRIP member Erin Tilk added that they understood they were playing “the long game” with their advocacy.
“Even if we can’t change the minds of the officials who are in power right now, maybe we can sway public opinion a bit more and consider changing things that way.”