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Saskatchewan restricts needle exchange, makes changes to harm reduction funding


The Saskatchewan government says it will no longer fund some harm reduction measures for illicit drug users and will place limits on needle exchange programs.

On Thursday, the province announced the end of provincial support for programs that provide a safe supply of pipes for inhaling drugs.

"We're realigning these services to ensure that the message that we're sending is clear and consistent, which is specifically that there's a path to recovery here. And for those who have yet to walk that path, there is help available through treatment. ,” addictions Minister Tim McLeod told CTV News.

The distribution of the pipes, intended to encourage individual use and prevent disease transmission, will no longer be funded by the Ministry of Health or the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

"The provision of pipes for smoking, methamphetamine and crack cocaine is something that's sending the wrong message to the people that we want to help these ... it's condoning or otherwise normalizing illicit drug use," McLeod said.

Saskatchewan will also require needle exchanges to operate on an exchange basis, meaning used needles must be returned before more are provided.

The provincial government's release said the new rules will get back needles that can be "littered in communities" or improperly disposed of.

"Unfortunately in recent years, we've seen those needle exchanges drift away into more of a distribution model, which was not an authorized shift. It just sort of happened over time through through the providers," McLeod said.

Many experts disagree with such restrictions, arguing that adding barriers to sterile needle access can lead to increased rates of blood-borne illness and HIV transmission.

"You know, it's not about funding illicit drug use, it's about keeping people alive. And in this province, we already have the highest rates of HIV transmission in Canada," said Prairie Harm Reduction director Kayla Demong.

"The very little control we're able to keep on this situation, it's just going to explode. And it is directly related to our homeless population, our Indigenous people of this province, and people that aren't welcome anywhere else," Demong said.

In its news release, the province said any savings that result from the program cuts will be put towards "enhancing needle pickup services."

"Needle exchanges will be required to provide this service in the communities in which they operate," the news release said. 

Two key overdose prevention measures were left untouched by the Saskatchewan government.

The province said the distribution of free, life-saving naloxone kits will continue, and test strips for fentanyl and benzodiazepine contamination will still be available.

In announcing the changes, the province pointed to a Fall 2023 pledge to add 500 addiction treatment spaces to Saskatchewan's health care system. 

The government also touted its new drug alert system that sends text message warnings when toxic batches of drugs are suspected to be in circulation.

--With files from Keenan Sorokan Top Stories

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