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Sask. woman recovering from addiction fears for her sister as drug crisis sweeps through province

Every day Meagan Jasper wakes up wondering if her younger sister is still alive.

She says her sister Brooke was a good kid who only ever wanted to be a mother.

Jasper, who is recovering from his addiction, lives in Moose Jaw, Sask., about 70 kilometers west of Regina.

She said Brooke, her only sister, supported her when she was addicted to drugs.

But the trauma of an abusive relationship led to Brooke struggling with addiction herself, leading her to the point where she now overdoses several times a week, Jasper said.

Now Jasper is terrified that Brooke is somewhere on Regina’s streets, overdosing and possibly not having enough narcan to save her.

“It’s scary not knowing if I’m going to wake up to that phone call or to a rest in peace post about her,” Jasper said.

“I wake up every day and my social media is full of rest at peace [posts]. And it’s young people, it’s a whole generation, like generations that are being wiped out.”

Sask. on track for a further increase in drug toxicity deaths

As of September 30 of this year, there have been 336 overdose-related deaths in the province — 116 confirmed drug toxicity deaths and 220 suspected fatal overdoses — according to the latest report from the Saskatchewan Coroners Service.

Last year, the province reported 409 confirmed or suspected drug toxicity deaths for all of 2021.

Now Saskatchewan Chief Coroner Clive Weighill said he expects the number of deaths in the province to continue to increase year on year.

“I would expect that we’re probably going to see a number in the mid to high four hundred range,” Weighill said.

“I think it’s a problem across Canada.”

As of September 30, there have been 116 confirmed and 220 suspected drug toxicity deaths in Saskatchewan that year. (Saskatchewan Coroners Service)

Fentanyl plays a big part in the rising numbers, with the opioid being 50 to 100 times more toxic than others like heroin or morphine, according to the province.

From January 1 through September 30, 2022, the Saskatchewan Coroners Service reported 64 confirmed accidental drug toxicity deaths related to fentanyl and 34 related to acetyl-fentanyl.

According to the Government of Canada website, fentanyl was implicated in 85 percent of all accidental deaths from overt opioid toxicity across Canada from January to March 2022.

But it’s usually not just one drug that kills people, it’s a combination of substances, Weighill said.

As the drug supply becomes more toxic, governments must respond better to save the lives of their residents, said Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

“What’s happening in Saskatchewan, it sounds like the illegal drug market is catching up to other parts of the country,” he said.

“The transnational organized crime drug market is robust and they are using fentanyl like they have never used it before.”

In the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic — between April 2020 and March 2022 — there was a 91 percent increase in apparent opioid toxicity deaths in the country compared to the two years prior, according to the Canadian government. During that time, 90 percent of all accidental deaths from overt opioid toxicity occurred in British Columbia, Alberta, or Ontario. (Government of Canada)

No provincial funding to operate the supervised consumption facility in Saskatoon

The executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon is not surprised by the recent death toll from drug toxicity.

Kayla DeMong’s organization operates Saskatchewan’s first supervised consumption facility.

“We’re under a lot of pressure,” she said.

“We no longer have any resources to offer. Without funding for our secure consumption site, we are extremely limited in what we can do.”

Earlier this year, the province announced it had committed $470 million to mental health and addiction services for 2022 and 2023.

But in March, Prairie Harm Reduction was again removed from the province’s 2022-23 budget. He was denied funding by the province for three years in a row.

Kayla DeMong is Executive Director at Prairie Harm Reduction. She hopes for a provincial strategy to tackle the ongoing drug overdose crisis not only in urban areas but also in underserved rural communities, she said. (Submitted by Kayla DeMong)

To date, there have been no fatal overdoses at the facility, DeMong said. But the picture on the other side of the doors is different.

“What we’re seeing right now, because we can’t be open all the time, is that our staff … attend to overdoses outside of the building when we’re not open,” DeMong said.

“Without the funding, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to operate at full capacity and truly address the needs of the community.”

Province buys spectrometer but no training yet, organizations say

This year, the province of Prairie Harm Reduction gave a drug screening spectrometer, which is used to determine what’s in drugs before they’re consumed. However, not only was the device delivered later than expected, it’s been in a box since the summer, DeMong said.

“We still have to go through the training,” DeMong said. “At this point the provincial communication is that hopefully training will be established in December.”

The plane arrived in Saskatoon in August but was expected in late spring, DeMong said.

Staff at the Nēwo-Yōtina Friendship Center in Regina are also waiting to use their spectrometer.

The organization runs an overdose prevention website, which opened its doors last summer.

“We basically just sat here and looked at it and told customers that we’ll have one soon and that you’ll be able to come in and have your drugs tested soon,” said Emile Gariepy, harm reduction manager at the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Center.

“Training just seems to be pushed back month after month.”

The province purchased a total of “four Fourier transform infrared spectrometers for use at designated staff-managed drug control sites” in Regina, Prince Albert, North Battleford and Saskatoon.

Reasons for the delay in both production and shipping include ongoing supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saskatchewan Department of Health and Human Services said in an email to CBC.

“Work is underway to install, develop procedures, obtain exemptions from Health Canada and train staff,” the Department of Health said.

“This is all required before operations can begin.”

According to the ministry, an official start date has not yet been set.

Addiction is a disease, says Jasper

Jasper still considers herself a “junkie” and “addict” even though she’s been clean for five years.

“It’s a disease,” she said. “It’s something I will have for the rest of my life.”

Inflation, along with a lack of accessible housing and readily available long-term detoxification and treatment options, creates additional challenges for people, she said.

For years, Jasper has helped others overcome their addictions.

She hopes more support will be available in Saskatchewan before it’s too late to save her sister.

“We have to focus on keeping people alive,” she said.

“If my sister dies tomorrow… her children will never see her again.”

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