Drug and intoxication calls up in Prince Albert, police data shows

Top three calls for service in October, making up 30 per cent of all police calls, related to addictions, police say in document coming on heels of news the province is on pace for a record number of overdose deaths

(File photo/Daily Herald)

Prince Albert police have seen a 15.31 per cent increase in drug possession files, and a 46.03 per cent increase in trafficking charges so far in 2020.

The latest agenda for the Board of Police Commissioners includes a more detailed analysis of crime statistics and notes that the top three call responses, making up 30 per cent of all calls for service, are primarily related to addictions. That includes disturbances, intoxicated persons and evictions, which are up 13 per cent, 10 per cent and eight per cent year-to-date, respectively. Family disputes are also up five per cent.

The data comes on the heels of updated numbers from the provincial coroners service showing that the province is on pace to double its previous record of overdose deaths.

“Concerning” and “alarming” were the words used Friday by the provincial government and the official opposition in response to the latest overdose death data.

Saskatchewan has seen 323 presumed and confirmed drug overdose deaths in 2020 alone. Of those, 201 are still under investigation but are currently presumed to have been caused by drug toxicity. The remaining 122 have been confirmed as of Oct. 26, with two months and dozens of investigations left to go.

The record number of overdose deaths in the province is 171, set in 2018. This year, Saskatchewan is on pace to double that.

The data was first reported by Brady Lang of CKOM.

It’s a situation that Jason Mercredi, the executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon, called “a major health crisis” during a Thursday interview.

NDP deputy leader and critic for justice, corrections and policing Nicole Sarauer said Friday the updated data is “incredibly alarming.”

“I’ve been following closely the number of overdoses and number of overdose deaths in Regina in particular,” she said. “Province-wide it’s clear that this is a crisis … going largely unaddressed by the government.”

Mercredi has called for a press conference next week from the provincial government as well as a plan to address the current situation.

Sarauer also asked for stronger action.

“There are many things the government could be doing that they’re choosing not to do,” she said.

“The first would be to create a provincial opioid and crystal meth strategy. This isn’t just an issue specific to one part of the province or one demographic, but an across-the-board issue that needs to be addressed with a comprehensive, province-wide plan that has accountability measures and actual budget dollars attached to it.”

Mental health and addictions concerns were present, and increasing, prior to COVID-19, Sarauer said. The pandemic has only made those problems worse.

“The mental health crisis has been largely ignored by the province for a while now,” she said.

“The government has chosen to ignore that side of the (COVID-19) pandemic and in doing so, what they’re really doing is risking the lives of many folks in the province.”

While preliminary data shows significantly higher numbers of overdose deaths in Saskatoon and Regina, Mercredi said that once the final numbers come out, it’s expected that they will be more spread out in terms of geography. Even so, Prince Albert has had five confirmed overdose deaths this year, and confirmed overdose deaths have occurred in 30 communities province-wide.

Other data — as well as front-line accounts — also speak to the magnitude of the challenge the province is facing.

Parkland Ambulance recorded over double the number of overdose calls in the Prince Albert area within the last two weeks of July, seeing 29 in that short period of time. It was the second time that month the service reported an increase in overdose calls. On Canada Day, the Regina Police notified the public of a growing number of overdoses in the provincial capital, both fatal and non-fatal, reported to the police. Since in some cases, calls for emergency help aren’t made, the actual number of cases is likely higher. Just six months through the year, police in Regina were aware of 450 overdose events.

Some agencies, such as Statistics Canada, are tracking the incidence rates of violence, drugs and crime as the pandemic unfolds. While data isn’t available in Prince Albert, from March to August of this year, Statistics Canada says, Saskatoon police responded to 128 overdose calls.

Anecdotally, though, Police Chief Jon Bergen said meth and opioid are “readily available” and that increasing drug use and addictions are driving rising crime trends in the city.

The Herald put in a request Friday morning to speak to someone, preferably Rural and Remote Health Minister Everett Hindley, about the data released by the coroners service. Hindley, it was announced this fall, will add a mental health and addictions focus to his portfolio. It’s a new focus within the Saskatchewan Party cabinet.

That focus area is something the NDP is happy to see.

“We’re happy the government took that measure. We had a critic for mental health and addiction created prior to their minister, so we’re happy they’re following suit,” Sarauer said.

“However, a minister without any sort of power or dedicated influx of dollars or without a plan generally isn’t really worth anything for the people who are suffering in the province.”

Hindley wasn’t available for an interview Friday, but the Ministry of Health did provide a written statement in response to the Herald’s request.

“Our government is concerned about the increase in overdoses and the impact on individuals, families and communities,” the statement said.

“We are committed to working with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, community-based organizations, police services and municipal partners to find solutions to address this complex issue.”

The statement said that the province funds a “continuum” of alcohol and drug services to ensure people can access services at the most appropriate location when they need them. They also touted the $1.55 million spent in budget 2020-21 to establish a new crystal meth inpatient treatment centre and other treatment beds in Estevan to treat individuals from across the province.

They also highlighted $1.7 million for 28 new detox beds in Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, North Battleford and “other potential locations;” as well as $800,000 to fund dedicated addiction workers to improve emergency department responses in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert.

The recent establishment of Rapid Access Addictions Medicine (RAAM) clinics was also included in the statement. The clinics support clients via referral from emergency and acute care with rapid accuses to suboxone and methadone. The Prince Albert clinic was the first to open in the province. They said an additional $400,000 will be used to establish a fourth RAAM clinic in North Battleford.

“One of the key strategies to address overdose in particular, is the implementation of the Take Home Naloxone (THN) program, which has already distributed more than 5,400 kits so far in 2020. The Saskatchewan Health Authority has increased the number of distribution sites where Take Home Naloxone is available through partnerships with community pharmacies, and the program continues to expand,” the statement said.

It concluded by highlighting the services offered through the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s Mental Health and Addictions Services branch, and through HealthLine 811.

Those types of responses, though, don’t quite cut it for Mercredi, nor for Sarauer.

“Anytime we’ve brought up overdoses and overdose deaths, all we hear about is past investments, and I think we’re all kind of sick of hearing about past investments,” Mercredi said Thursday.

“We want to know what steps are being taken now to keep people from dying, not what’s been done in the past.”

Sarauer had similar concerns.

“It’s what the government largely does when we bring up this issue in the chamber. It’s frustrating because they’re talking about their past investments that clearly aren’t working,” she said.

She called on the province to, as a start, open up dedicated mental health emergency rooms, part of the NDP’s platform this past election.

“We would be happy to have the government steal (that) from us right now as a way of trying to address, at least starting to address, this problem in the province,” she said.

“The numbers aren’t lying. the deaths aren’t lying. They’re painting a stark picture. This government is not doing enough to address this problem.”