Prince Albert Harm Reduction Coalition hoping to open safe consumption site in city

Discussions on establishing such a facility stalled four years ago, but organizers believe it will be different this time around

A group of citizens is looking to establish a supervised consumption site in Prince Albert.

Calling itself the Prince Albert Harm Reduction Coalition (PAHRC), the organization is in its early stages but counts health professionals, policy professionals and former city councillors among its supporters. It’s already raised some money to help establish itself as a not-for-profit group and undertake some initial small-scale projects in the city.

Co-founder Katelin Loseth-McKelvie said PAHRC’s ultimate goal is to open Prince Albert’s first safe consumption site and harm reduction centre.

She cited the rising number of drug seizures by police, sky-high rates of HIV and record instances of drug overdose deaths as just some of the evidence more has to be done.

So far in 2021, drug charges have seen an 84.62 per cent increase year over year, driven by a 128 per cent increase in trafficking charges. This year police have seized meth 86 times, taking 743.7 grams off the street. Police have also seized cocaine 21 times, netting 139.8 grams, and crack cocaine 16 times, seizing 275.4 grams.

Saskatchewan had 233 confirmed drug overdose deaths in 2020, with 112 suspected cases still under investigation. The previous high, 177 was posted in 2019. Already this year, the province has seen ten confirmed and 65 suspected overdose deaths.

Agencies in Prince Albert, such as the police and Parkland Ambulance, issued warnings at various points in time last year about spikes in drug overdose calls or dangerous substances such as fentanyl found on the street.

The increase led to Parkland Ambulance’s Lyle Karasiuk musing whether the conversation surrounding opening a safe injection site here was one worth having.

Saskatchewan’s HIV rate is more than twice the national average at a rate of 14.1 cases per 100,000 population. In 2018, the Prince Albert area’s HIV rate was more than triple that, with 64.4 HIV positive people per 100,000.

Saskatchewan is also the only province where injection drug use — not sex — is the primary risk factor in HIV transmission.

The city is also home to the province’s first Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine clinic, set up by the SHA to help connect people seeking help with assistance when they need it.

Existing services, such as the needle exchange and clinics offered through the provincial health system are “very good and much needed,” Loseth-McKelvie said, but PAHRC would allow clients to “come into the facility and use their drugs in a supervised setting, so we would have health professionals on-site to care for them if there was an overdose, or, you know, they could care for other medical-related issues connected to drug use,” Loseth-McKelvie said.

“As much as (these issues) are fairly spread out across Saskatchewan, it seems like we see a higher concentration in Prince Albert. We definitely need something like this in this city.”

Loseth-McKelvie added that the site would also offer support services and education for anyone wanting to connect to further care, as well as offering a take-home Naloxone program.

 PAHRC would connect with existing organizations, such as Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon, or the Friendship Centre in Regina, that also offer similar facilities for their residents.

“We want to work with sites that are already open, with people who have been doing this work now for a few years to make sure that we are following best practices.”

Four days ago PAHRC launched their online GoFundMe campaign. They’ve raised close to $2,000 so far, almost double their goal.

“The money that we’ve raised so far will go towards helping us officially register as a nonprofit organization with charitable status,” Loseth-McKelvie said.

“Our next steps are then to continue our research and fundraise on a larger scale because our greatest need is money and funding.”

The focus over the next year, she said, is to create a strategic plan and get funding in place. They’re also going to start working in the community, holding virtual town halls to meet with citizens and share information about what they’re planning to do.

PAHRC is also planning a series of community cleanup events to pick up needles and other drug paraphernalia.

“We’re really at the beginning of the startup phase,” Loseth-McKelvie said. “We’re just getting all of our paperwork and funding in place.”

While the organization has already enjoyed some support, it’s also experienced some pushback.

“(Some) small business owners and concerned citizens have definitely expressed how they feel about having a safe consumption site in or around P.A.” Loseth-McKelvie said.

‘We definitely want to work with the community and work with small business owners or local business owners. Our big initiative this summer is really connecting with the people of PA to provide the information and resources so they fully understand what a safe consumption site is and the positive effects it does have on a community.”

Loseth-McKelvie  said the facilities are proven to save lives, reduce crime and create a safer community for everybody.

“We fully expect pushback, and we’re ready to sit down and talk about it and answer any questions and address any concerns. We definitely want to have a positive relationship with the community,” Loseth-McKelvie said.

‘We’re hoping this summer to host a series of virtual town hall events where anyone who has concerns or thoughts or opinions or ideas can connect with us and we can facilitate a conversation that way.”

Conversation not new to Prince Albert

The idea of a supervised consumption site isn’t new.

Insite, the first legal supervised drug injection site on the continent opened in Vancouver in 2003.

The site has been the focus of more than 30 studies published in 15 peer-reviewed journals, showing benefits such as reductions in needle sharing and increases in the use of detox and addiction treatments.

There are now over a dozen such facilities in Canada, including Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon. The federal government has actively worked to streamline the application process so communities that wish to open such sites can.

In 2017 Insite’s clinical coordinator was the keynote speaker at an event called HIV Education for Change.

He said then that he was shocked when he heard how many drug users in the Prince Albert area are contracting HIV through needles. The numbers convinced him that the city needs to expand its harm reduction programs.

“For me it’s not even a question,” Gauthier said. “When I heard about the 70 per cent of people who are HIV positive and are injection drug users, I just couldn’t believe that more hadn’t been done.”

Gauthier shared statistics from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where Insite helped reduce the proportion of HIV positive injection drug users from 35 to 17 per cent. He also stressed that Vancouver is dealing with a massive increase in overdose deaths – but no one has ever died of an overdose at Insite.

It wasn’t the only time the issue came up that year in P.A.

Four years ago, in April, ago, an initiative spearheaded by then-councillor Evert Botha resulted in council agreeing by a slim 5-4 margin to send a letter to the ministries of health and social services “highlighting the need for a more integrated approach to harm reduction,” including a medically-supervised injection site as a possible solution, funded jointly by the provincial and federal governments.

At the time, Botha said a safe injection site, which would allow addicts to use drugs under the supervision of medical professionals, is necessary to slow the transmission of infectious disease and prevent overdose deaths.

“We need to admit that we are, and have been, in the midst of a crisis,” he said. “We are heading for catastrophe.”

The letter was an important step on the road to opening a safe injection site in Prince Albert. In 2016, the federal government set up a new process that proposals need to follow. It requires applicants to submit statements of support from their city government, police chief and relevant provincial government ministries.

Botha’s motion triggered a passionate debate on both sides. Mayor Greg Dionne led the charge against the proposed site, saying it will encourage drug use.

“I don’t want to give these people a safe place to do illegal drugs,” he said. “I want to cure them, I want to lift them up and I want them to be part of society.

“And by giving them a place to hide and continue their drug abuse, that goal is not going to be met. So I cannot support a safe injection site. I never will.”

Botha is no longer on council. But his support for such an initiative hasn’t wavered.

“It’s very much needed in our community, probably more so than in Saskatoon or Regina, or any of the other jurisdictions that have been mentioned in the media over the years,” he said when reached by phone Friday.

“I was very encouraged by the increase in beds and capacity for the homeless shelters. I think this is going to be another piece in the pie to provide services … for victims of substance abuse disorders.”

Back in 2017, Botha said, the hope was that somebody from the community would step up to run such a facility.

“I just wanted to prepare city council to be ready and willing to accommodate this and work with whichever community-based organization, stakeholder or external party had to come to council to establish a facility such as that.”

Since then, he said, there were lots of meetings about harm reduction, costs, permits and more. He sees a safe consumption site as another step towards harm reduction for Prince Albert.

“Having more homeless shelters, having the community cares kitchen, having the Gate at Access Place moving to the Union Centre all contributed to making sure that we have safe environments for individuals. I think our community as a whole is probably starting to accept and understand the concept of harm reduction a lot more.”

Existing sites building understanding, Loseth-McKelvie says

Botha has spoken to Loseth-McKelvie and lent her his support He’s among former councillors and health professionals Loseth-McKelvie said are offering guidance and insight based on their experiences to date. She shares a hope that the conversation will be different this time around.

Growing up in Prince Albert, she said, Loseth-McKelvie saw the need for such a site. She also has the education and first-hand experience to back it up. She has a master’s degree in public policy and a bachelor’s degree in Indigenous Studies. She’s volunteered with the Elizabeth Fry Society and Str8 Up.

“With my policy background and my experience working in the community and growing up in PA. And seeing this need, seeing that it has been a discussion and hasn’t seemed to really go anywhere, I thought ‘okay, what more can we do?’”

Botha hopes the conversation has changed. He said that harm reduction isn’t something that can be sensationalized anymore.

“It’s part of moving forward,” he said. ‘Part of moving forward is having the space so it’s not in the back lanes, on the side and in front of shops, and in doorways and stairwells, but in a space where people are supervised. Where they can be offered the opportunity to enter programs for rehabilitation or workplace employment. It’s not just about providing a safe space. It’s providing all the ancillary services and pathways to recovery.”

Botha remains firm that a supervised consumption site could be part of a solution to addictions in the community, creating an opportunity to interact with victims of substance abuse disorders “on a one-to-one basis, with individuals that may not normally be in the same space for more than five minutes at a time.

“It moves beyond needle pickup and exchange into a space where people are in safe, clean, sterile environment,” Botha continued.

“I think people are more willing to have that discussion provided that this is done right. But having somebody with the appetite and willingness and drive to actually get this project underway — I’m very encouraged to see that.”

The conversation, four years ago, was before Prairie Harm Reduction opened its doors. It was before more facilities across Canada popped up to offer similar services.

Four years ago, Loseth-McKelvie said, Prairie Harm Reduction hadn’t opened its doors. Harm reduction and safe consumption weren’t terms residents in Saskatchewan — let alone Prince Albert — were familiar with.

PHR opened its doors last October. Regina’s site received its approval earlier this month.

“The talk about having a safe consumption site in P.A. was largely before Prairie Harm reduction. It was on hold, but then Prairie Harm reduction opened their site and Regina theirs,” Loseth-McKelvie said.

 “We were thinking ‘okay, maybe there’s enough general knowledge and acceptance within the province that we could have another chance of opening a P.A. site. That’s what triggered that conversation again.”