Sask. expands intensive court program that helps people address substance use

Saskatchewan's first drug treatment court program began operating in Regina. The program then expanded to Moose Jaw and will begin operating in North Battleford later this year.  (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)
Saskatchewan's first drug treatment court program began operating in Regina. The program then expanded to Moose Jaw and will begin operating in North Battleford later this year. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)

The latest numbers from the Saskatchewan Coroners Service show it could be another grim — potentially record-setting — year for drug toxicity deaths in the province.

There were 143 suspected drug-related deaths recorded between January and April of this year. One of those has been confirmed to be a suicide, 45 were accidental and the rest are still under investigation.

The total number of accidental drug related deaths reported annually in Saskatchewan jumped dramatically in 2020 and has remained high since.

Last year, 465 people are suspected to have died because of drug use. The majority of the deaths were considered accidental and many are still under investigation.

"I think that speaks to the drugs that we're dealing with in our communities across Saskatchewan and across the nation. They are nothing short of poison. They're addictive and more addictive than they've ever been," said Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe on Thursday.

Moe said his government is addressing this crisis by focusing on expanding access to addictions treatment beds as well as supporting police enforcement to try to limit the flow of drugs.

Moe was speaking in North Battleford to announce that the government is expanding its Drug Treatment Court to the city. The therapeutic court model is offered as an option for some people who are charged with crimes related to their drug use or addictions. If they choose to partake, they can get a reduced sentence in exchange for their participation in intensive programming and guilty pleas.

The goal is to help people target the root cause of their substance use, while keeping them away from drugs and the justice system.

"About one-third of the folks that go through the program actually do graduate," Moe said.

He noted that might seem like a low number, but said "in this space of recovery and drug rehabilitation — that's an incredible number."

Regina and Moose Jaw's programs, which began in 2006 and 2009, have seen 140 graduates to date.

There's strong evidence that shows programs like this are effective in helping people move forward from their substance use, said Dr. Peter Butt, a retired physician and clinical associate professor who has expertise in addictions medicine. However, he cautioned that the expansion of the program also requires the expansion of other services.

"You can't have a drug court without increasing the access to services. The current system is overloaded but doesn't have a great capacity," he said.

"It's no different than a mental health court — when we don't have psychiatrists for people to be seen, the court can say and do whatever they want, but if people can't access the services, it's not going to have an impact."

The court program takes about one year and involves counselling and education, and requires ongoing proof of treatment and abstinence from drugs and crime. It is also supposed to connect people with supports related to employment, school and family related matters.

Butt said the program expansion won't have an immediate effect on the province's high overdose numbers, but he's hopeful it leads to the expansion or strengthening of other support services required to make the program successful.

A more robust system to help people tackle their addictions and reduce harm can target those numbers, he said.

Butt said it can take months or years for people to work through their addictions. He said all people dealing with addictions should be met with a variety of care and treatment options because there's not a one-size-fits-all model.

He's concerned by what appears to be a growing polarization around harm reduction services versus treatment when it comes to addictions, and said that's not conducive to the primary goal, which is to help people.

"We need a continuum of care.There's no magic bullet anywhere in that continuum."