Communities across Saskatchewan battling drugs, guns and gangs

With the Prince Albert police chief citing methamphetamine use, a rise in weapons offenses and gang violence as factors in recent crime trends in the city, we took a look at what other communties are saying and what the province’s response is at it works to keep people safe.

“When we start to see meth in the community — between trafficking charges, possession charges and seizures of meth — we start to see an increase in property-related and violent offences too,”

That’s what Prince Albert Police Chief Jon Bergen said last week during a press conference held to address recent trends in local crime.

The city has seen five homicides this year, the most since 2003, and a recent spike in both property and weapons offences.

“We believe that if we can have an impact there, that’s going to have an impact on the outcomes and what the long-term solution is. Part of our work as a police service is addressing the root causes of crime. We are already actively participating in discussions with various levels of governments and community groups to find solutions to various factors that can lead to criminal activity.”

Bergen isn’t the only Saskatchewan police chief who feels that way.

Recent news reports from cities across Saskatchewan have identified the same concerns, along with poverty and social inequity, as the drivers of violent and property crime across the province.

A few weeks ago Regina Police Chief Evan Bray said that city’s gun problem has fuelled one of the highest attempted murder rates in the past ten years.

“They’re prevalent,” said Bray. “They’re being used to threaten. They’re being used to intimidate. They’re being used to wound and they’re being used to kill.”

Bray said guns have become a tool for gangs or people with drug addictions, and that whereas officers used to see knives as the weapons of choice, guns have since taken over.

Bray emphasized the importance of provincial and federal support to address the root causes of crime.

Regina Mayor Michael Fougere said, “every city has the same kind of issues we’re facing.” He applauded the police for working to protect residents, recognizing crime trends related to guns, drugs and gangs and working on strategies to lessen the impact on the community.

In Saskatoon, guns, gangs and drugs have also been cited in a spike in violence in the Pleasant Hill neighbourhood.

Shane Partridge, a member of Str8 Up, an organization that helps gang members leave the lifestyle, said the violence is fuelled by drugs.

Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper said enforcement is a short-term solution to complicated social problems, and that police are involved in community programs and other long-term strategies to deal with housing and poverty.

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark said it’s clear that crystal meth, drug-related issues and related violence are core issues, and the city s working on a strategy. Partridge, too said meth and other drugs, poverty, colonialism and racism are to blame.

The rise of meth in the prairies

While fentanyl and other opioids have received much of the attention in recent years — and for good reason — it appears as if a different sort of drug is leading to issues across the prairies.

According to a Canadian Press report from last October, police officers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are as worried about crystal meth as they are about opioid use. Lethbridge police chief Rob Davis told the Canadian Press that he heard anecdotally that the perception is meth is safer than fentanyl, and that meth was the top drug consumed at the city’s supervised consumption site, followed by heroin and fentanyl. Officers in Saskatoon and Winnipeg are seeing similar trends.

According to CBC, meth, which is cheap, easy to get and hard to quit, accounts for more than 30 per cent of people seeking addiction treatment in the province, a ten-fold increase compared to five years ago.

It’s a trend that’s being noticed by those working in the addictions treatment field as well.

Angela Impey is the regional director for the Prince Albert branch of the Metis Addictions Council of Saskatchewan Inc (MACSI). Back in January, while reflecting on the organization’s 50th anniversary, she spoke about how needs have changed as crystal meth has emerged as a drug of choice.

“Crystal meth has overpowered alcohol at this point,” she said.

Many clients also abuse other substances, such as alcohol.

“They’re going hand-in-hand is what we’re seeing. Alcohol has a serious impact on the clients, but the more clinical impact and medical impact is the crystal meth use.”

Crystal meth use and detox from the drug is a lot more complicated than with alcohol. Use and withdrawal can cause symptoms such as psychosis. And while detoxing can take between seven and ten days, other symptoms can last for months, or even years.

“For crystal meth, it (can) take a year for the brain to heal. They go through what is called post-acute withdrawal symptoms and other symptoms of withdrawal that could take a longer period of time to stabilize than somebody coming off of alcohol,” Impey said.

A Prince Albert-based addictions counsellor, also with MACSI, said in January people who use crystal meth are often introduced to the drug by others. The high lasts longer than with alcohol or crack cocaine, and it’s comparatively cheaper to buy. People will discover the drug at parties or from other extended family members, and then it spreads from there.

Grief, trauma and homelessness do not discriminate, and they make it harder for someone to continue to cope once they’re released from a month-long program.

“We have a lot of First Nations, Métis and non-(Indigenous people) who are dealing with those issues. And homelessness is a big one,” Impey said.

 ‘Saskatchewan needs a robust crystal meth strategy’

The challenges with treating people addicted to crystal meth are not lost on NDP leader Ryan Meili.

Before he was elected to the provincial legislature, Meili was a family doctor.

“It was something I witnessed over and over again,” he said.

There were two things he saw as “really broken” in the addictions treatment system. The first was that it was hard to get into treatment in the first place.

“You get someone into your office and they’re in the window of time they’re willing and ready to make a change, that’s a rare opportunity,” he said.

“You need to get them help right away. So often, we’d make the call …. And the answer you’d get is sure, come back int here months, come back in six months. The waiting times to get help in a situation where you’re really responding to a crisis, you might as well tell people sorry, there isn’t any help for you. That’s what I saw so often.”

The second problem was similar to that MACSI was finding — a typical 28-day treatment program is nowhere near enough.

“Especially with crystal meth. It takes longer to get out of your system and to get people’s minds to a pale where they can even begin to work on the underlying reasons they’re using,” Meili said. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says ‘I’d like to be addicted to crystal meth.’”

Now, as a politician, Meili says he sees communities struggling with high rates of property crime and with growing number of people battling addictions to crystal meth and other drugs everywhere he goes. It’s not a problem, he said, that’s just confined to big cities.

According to data from the RCMP, crime across the province has decreased in terms of person crime. There have been 13 homicides in the Saskatchewan RCMP’s jurisdiction as of August 2019. There were 20 in all of 2018.

The Saskatchewan RCMP said it has seen no change in property crime across its jurisdiction this year.

“While we can’t articulate exactly what these results are attributed to, one thing that has made a significant difference is the creation of our Crime Reduction Team,” the RCMP wrote. “CRTs use intelligence-led policing tactics to maximize our service coverage and conduct strategic patrols targeting these areas that need enhanced police presence.”

 “The roots of the problem are inequality, poverty, marginalization of certain groups of people, in particular, Indigenous people. What has really resulted in a lot of people in desperate circumstances,” Meili said.

The other thing the province is seeing, Meili said, is a change in the drugs that are out there.

“We’re just seeing more presence of crystal meth. There’s a change in the drugs that are out there and they’re very cheap, they’re very powerful and addictive. There’s often psychosis and other behaviours and psychological modifications in people. That’s adding fuel to the fire of the existing, underlying problems.”

Meili said the problem has escalated to the point where the province needs a plan.

“Saskatchewan needs a robust, crystal meth strategy that looks at all phases of the involvement with addictions — that’s closely related to an anti-gang strategy and a crime prevention strategy.”

He predicted the discussion around crime, and around drug use, will continue into the 2020 provincial election.

“This is on a lot of people’s minds,” he said.

“There is a real risk that you get a government that wants to tell us they can arrest your way out of this problem, but you ask any police chief, any expert in crime what needs to be done is investing in people to keep them healthy and better if we want to avoid these problems.”

Province working to lessen impact of drug use, gang violence on Saskatchewan communities

The Ministries of Health, Justice and Corrections and Policing have seen first-hand some of the difficulties caused by meth use and gang activity in the province.

In response to inquiries, the ministries provided written statements outlining some of the initiatives they are undertaking to deal with gang involvement and drug use.

The province plans to implement a community intervention model to help gang members to help them leave the gang lifestyle and find opportunities for employment and education. Recently, a request for proposals was sent out to find a service provider for the community intervention model. Those proposals are currently under review.

Other initiatives include an expansion of the dedicated substance abuse treatment unit program which is currently used in the Regina Correctional Centre, to other correctional facilities across the province.

“By treating the aggravating influence of drugs among gang members, we hope to reduce reoffending and ultimately help them leave the gang lifestyle altogether,” they wrote.

The Ministry of Corrections and Policing is also expanding its security intelligence unit to collect and analyze gang activity and enhancing resources dedicated to prosecuting people involved in gang crime and criminal organizations.

The Ministry of Health sent an extensive response detailing plans in place to address several of the concerns brought forward surrounding the use of methamphetamine. It said it was working through challenges with withdrawal management, detox and treatment, reducing gaps between different services and working to educate health care and other professionals about the “complexities” surrounding crystal meth use.

The ministry highlighted new treatment and detox beds it is bringing across the province, including in Prince Albert and La Ronge, that should reduce the strain on existing care providers.

Additionally, it outlined the launch of a Rapid Access to Addiction Medicine clinic in Prince Albert providing fast access to treatment by multi-disciplinary teams and the launch of the Police and Crisis Team in October of 2018.

The province isn’t the only one to mention the police and crisis team. Bergen himself praised the initiative during last week’s news conference.

Prince Albert also has a unique project, the Enhanced Addictions Medicine Support initiative.

“Through this initiative, a specialty physician team is currently delivering dedicated addiction medicine clinical hours in Prince Albert weekly, with 24-hour on-call coverage provided at Victoria Hospital,” the province said.

The province also acknowledged the same thing MACSI and Meili did — that people using crystal meth can have additional concerning issues and may be “experiencing difficulties in multiple areas of their lives.

“As such, engaging this population in addiction treatment, and providing treatment and other health services to this population can be more complex and resource-intensive than with many other addictions.

“We are concerned about the rise in use of crystal meth and are collaborating with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and other providers. … We also work with service partners like harm reduction sites and other ministries who provide services to individuals whose lives are impacted by their use of crystal meth.”

While the province did not say whether it is working on a Saskatchewan-wide crystal meth use or addiction strategy, it did say it is being guided by the ten-year mental health and addictions action plan.

“As it is common for individuals to be polysubstance users or to have co-occurring mental health concerns, the inter-sectoral approach of the Mental Health and Addictions Action Plan is needed to best support individuals who use crystal meth.”

— with files from Jennifer Ackerman, Regina Leader-Post and Thia James, Saskatoon StarPhoenix