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'Continued resistance': Saskatchewan government won't fund supervised consumption

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Regina, Sask. -

The Saskatchewan Party government has made it clear it won't fund supervised drug consumption services, a move one researcher says is not based on evidence.

The province pledged in its throne speech this week it won't allow illegal drugs to be supplied through hospitals or public clinics.

And Tim McLeod, who is minister of mental health and addictions, suggested Thursday that supervised consumption services don't solve addictions.

"If you're using illicit and potentially lethal drugs, you're not on the path to recovery," McLeod told reporters. "We want to provide people with the supports that they need to be on the path to recovery."

Barb Fornssler, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said she's disappointed the province won't consider funding supervised consumption.

She said it's part of broader harm reduction strategies that can prevent people from dying or contracting viruses, like HIV.

"The way we can get ahead of that is through harm reduction medical practices that are well established and evidence-based," Fornssler said in an interview.

"It's not clear to me why there is the continued resistance, except that they've taken that ideological standpoint."

Fornssler's research shows people who have a safe place to sleep, food on the table and aren't criminalized for substance use are more able to engage in treatment.

The Newo Yotina Friendship Centre in Regina and Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon are the two sites in Saskatchewan that offer the services.

The government has provided funding to the organizations to cover costs associated with drug-checking devices. It's also given dollars to Prairie Harm Reduction so it can run semi-independent living services to boys.

McLeod did not say what future funding will look like for those organizations.

He added more details on how the province plans to address harm reduction are to be announced in the coming weeks.

Opposition NDP health critic Vicki Mowat said the province should fund consumption sites.

She added community organizations should operate them.

"We need to address it and that starts by having real harm reduction measures and not hiding from those," she said.

In early October, the province announced a multi-year plan to build 500 new addictions treatment spaces over five years. It's to also include a central intake system that allows people to refer themselves for treatment. Family members can also refer their loved ones.

McLeod said the plan is meant to focus on recovery and treatment.

"People need to commit to the recovery journey, and we're providing supports necessary to help them make those healthy decisions," he said.

Fornssler said more supports for harm reduction can help the province save on costs, as it can help people from needing additional care.

"We've chosen to focus on the most costly part of care, which is acute care services that are often offered in hospital," she said.

"What harm reduction services provide is an opportunity to minimize those costs, and to get ahead of the health concerns in an upstream way."

Mowat said the government's plan lacks details.

"We know that there are record numbers of overdoses in Saskatchewan right now and rampant drug use in ways we haven't seen before," she said.

"My fear is if we ignore front-line workers, if we don't listen to experts on this area, we are going to see more people dying, more people suffering from addiction and more people on the streets."

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2023.

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