REGINA — Canada’s first legal supervised consumption site opened in Vancouver in 2003, but it would take 18 years and more than 1,000 drug-related deaths in Saskatchewan before similar support would become available in the province's capital.
“This is based on the premise of harm reduction,” said Michael Parker, executive director of Regina's Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre, which houses the site that opened last month. “To say, 'No, no, you shouldn’t do that' doesn’t change it (drug use).
"To create a safe space for people to use with medical supervision means that they’re more likely to be able to access other supports and services when they’re ready.
"I’ve said it before, and others have said it: you can’t ever go to treatment if you’re dead.”
Police have said that by the beginning of June, almost 50 people in Regina had died of a drug overdose in 2021. That’s more than double the number of drug deaths over the same period last year.
In just a three-day period between May 15 and May 17, four people — the youngest in his 20s; the oldest in his 50s — died of apparent drug overdoses.
The new overdose prevention site opened just days later.
“That definitely makes a strong case for it,” said Parker. “These are real people, and this is something that’s very preventable. As far as I know, there have been no reported cases of deaths occurring in a supervised consumption site in Canada.”
At the Regina site, drug users have access to clean needles and can take drugs under medical supervision so they don’t have to use alone.
There has been a “slow and steady increase” in people coming to the site, averaging between two and five a day, Parker said.
He credits organizations like Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon and AIDS Programs South Saskatchewan in Regina for helping to shape the conversation about harm reduction in recent years.
“In my view, that’s a real positive shift when we can have practical conversations about harm reduction rather than an ideological conversation,” he said.
The AIDS organization distributed and collected more than a million needles last year and offers anti-overdose Naloxone training and other education. Educational adviser Shiny Mary Varghese says much more needs to be done.
“It’s like a little pebble in an ocean,” she said. “We still have long ways to go for us to break down these barriers so that we can save lives."
Varghese said Regina’s drug crisis has become even more severe during the pandemic, increasing the need for accessible harm reduction.
“Over the pandemic and the lockdown, we saw an increase in the number of people who have been using,” she said. “Some people who were sober for over 10 years returned to using due to the isolation.”
Earlier this month, the city announced a grant program totalling $500,000 for groups involved with harm reduction.
Coun. Andrew Stevens, who also sits on the Board of Police Commissioners, says first responders have been painting a grim view of a worsening overdose crisis in Regina for years.
“Most of the calls that the Regina Police Service responds to now are not criminal in nature,” said Stevens. “There’s a really tragic increase in the number of overdose calls they’re responding to. And that’s just one emergency service provider," he said.
“When the police — who are tasked with enforcing the law — are telling elected officials to catch up, to talk about this as a public issue and as a social issue … I think it’s finally time for elected officials to shake their heads and recognize that the war on drugs is over.”
The grant money will go to groups providing mental-health support, addictions support and supervised consumption. Stevens believes the money will save lives, but adds much more support will be needed in the future.
“It’s not enough,” he said. “Half a million dollars is nothing. We need 24-hour support."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2021.
— By Julia Peterson in Saskatoon
The Canadian Press