The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses has called on the province to reverse recent changes to harm reduction services, joining other doctors, researchers and advocates who say the decision will cost lives and increase the spread of blood-borne diseases — particularly in rural and Indigenous communities.
Last week, the provincial health ministry announced it would stop providing clean pipes and require people to return a used needle in order to receive a clean needle. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Tim McLeod told CBC at the time the decision would support the province's "recovery-oriented" approach to the toxic drug crisis.
However, nurses' union president Tracy Zambory said the changes are "regressive" and will further strain Saskatchewan's beleaguered health-care system.
"When we take this step back, we grab on to addicts and their families and we yank them back there with us," she said in a Wednesday interview.
"It's very unfortunate that we're finding ourselves down this road that is about ideology, and it does not support the research and the evidence that is there to medically treat an addiction."
Saskatchewan Union of Nurses president Tracy Zambory, seen here last March, says the decision is 'ideological' and 'regressive.' (Adam Bent/CBC)
Dr. George Carson, a Regina-based physician with a focus on public health, says there's decades of evidence showing that providing sterile equipment and discouraging drug injection saves lives and prevents the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.
The province's move is "entirely ideological" and "just plainly wrong," he said in a Tuesday interview.
"A lot of people are going to get hurt who aren't ready yet for treatment, but they can't stop using."
The province's new rules mean third-party organizations will also not be able to use provincial funds to provide clean pipes.
The impacts of the changes will hit particularly hard in Indigenous communities, rural and remote areas, where harm reduction and treatment options are stretched even thinner, according to Tina Johnson, an outreach manager with Scattered Site Outreach Society in La Ronge.
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She said people travel from all over northern Saskatchewan to get clean needles, new pipes and HIV/AIDS testing kits from Scattered Site. The centre also helps them access treatment, detox and housing supports.
"We have a very small window before they change their mind," Johnson told CBC Radio's Blue Sky on Tuesday. "And unfortunately we don't have the resources up here, and it can be very difficult to get people into treatment facilities."
Tina Johnson, an outreach manager with Scattered Site Outreach Society in La Ronge, says harm reduction and treatment options are already stretched thin in northern Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Modeste McKenzie)
But she doesn't know how people will cope if the organization can't afford to buy clean pipes, now that it is barred from buying them with provincial funding.
"It's not going to stop people from using — it's just going to stop people from using safely," said Johnson.
Joan Breland, the director of holistic wellness with the Prince Albert Grand Council, also urged the provincial government to reverse the decision and fund more treatment services in rural and Indigenous communities.
Harm reduction sites "are a lifeline for some of the clientele that visit on a regular basis, because they can get support [and] they can be heard," said Breland.
Minister McLeod's office did not return CBC's request for comment by publication.
Treatment, harm reduction both needed: advocates
The mental health and addictions minister told CBC last week the policy change should signal that "there's hope for recovery."
"Providing crack pipes and instructions on how to use illicit drugs sends the wrong message. It's giving individuals the impression that using illicit drugs is somehow safe or condoned," McLeod said.
On Thursday, McLeod doubled down on the change despite the uproar.
He said he "absolutely" disagrees with the groups saying the policy change will cause more harm in regards to HIV/AIDS infections and overdose deaths.
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Tim McLeod said last week the move is aimed at a 'recovery-oriented' approach to the toxic drug crisis. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)
McLeod said the province going in a "recovery-oriented" direction is based on consultation with ROSC Solutions Group. According to the group's website, it is "a trusted and experienced provider of comprehensive addiction recovery, medical and psychosocial services."
According to McLeod, the recovery group will release the report that the government says the recent policy changes are based on.
The announcement about the policy change came after a report from the Saskatchewan Coroners Service indicated the number of drug toxicity deaths in 2023 are likely to set a provincial record, with 454 suspected and confirmed deaths.
Carson, Zambory and Johnson say harm reduction and treatment services are both necessary to respond to the crisis, particularly when the drug supply is increasingly contaminated.
"The fact that the province is making available more treatment beds is a good thing," said Carson. "But ... people have to survive to get there."
Carson says the province should also look at providing regulated, prescription alternatives to street drugs — an approach which can significantly decrease overdose risks, according to a recent study in B.C.
Providing clean needles and pipes is also paramount to curbing Saskatchewan's HIV infection rate, which is roughly five times the national average and the highest rate in Canada, according to Carson and Barbara Fornssler, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Saskatchewan.
Fornssler says the changes to needle and pipe programs have "severed a line of connection in this province."
"To reduce supply distribution at this time will simply magnify the harms people are experiencing, and it may make that treatment investment completely ineffective," she told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition on Monday.