But something deadly is still getting in.
In fact, Barbar said, “From our perspective, there hasn’t been a change from pre-COVID to COVID time, throughout now the almost full year we have been under the pandemic,” he said, explaining the SPS tracks drug flow and trafficking based on drug seizures and arrests.
He said drugs like fentanyl enter the country through commercial transport routes.
“The borders are closed for you and me,” he said, “but they’re certainly not closed to shipping.”
Barbar commands the street crimes unit, which encompasses the drug team.
He told Global News the SPS can’t track the illicit substances once they are inside the country.
“The first port of entry is not Saskatoon, so we don’t really have any point of control where we can… inspect trucks coming in or anything like that,” he said, speaking over Zoom.
The COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with, and Barbar says worsened, a second health crisis in Saskatchewan.
The provincial coroner’s service estimates as many as 377 people died from confirmed and suspected drug overdoses in 2020, smashing the previous record of 177, set in 2019.
And the coroner’s service estimates that, as of Jan. 31 of this year, 36 people have died from overdoses.
Barbar says the death count has risen mostly because the pandemic forces people to use drugs alone.
“They may have had a buddy there for safety who would have been able to call paramedics if something went wrong. Now they’re alone and there’s nobody to bail them out if something goes wrong,” he said.
But that may only be part of the problem.
Advocates and frontline workers told Global News they’re seeing deadlier drugs.
“We are having to give higher doses, or repeat doses of Narcan to wake patients up from opioid overdoses,” Medavie Health Services West spokesperson Troy Davies wrote in an email.
“This points to more potent drugs.”
The executive director of the only supervised consumption site in the province said the same thing.
“We’ve done upwards of nine shots, sometimes 12, 13,” Jason Mercredi said.
“All Narcan does is buy time to get medical attention.”
He said Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR) staff are seeing more drugs laced with fentanyl.
“In Saskatchewan, the increase in the presence of fentanyl, acetyl fentanyl and methamphetamine has contributed to the increase in fatal overdoses seen in the last year,” the statement from Margherita Vittorelli said.
Barbar said police only test drugs to identify them and not to check potency.
“The drug supply is just gotten so poisonous that we’re dealing with record deaths in the province and it’s really spiraling out of control,” Mercredi said.
“People are taking what they think is a Xanax or Percocet or cocaine or even crystal meth, and it’s laced with fentanyl. And as a result, people are overdosing and dying.”
He said sites like PHR need equipment to test drugs to ensure its safe for their clients.
In addition to deadlier drugs, Mercredi said PHR staff are seeing new clients because they need support.
And he said helping record amounts of people deal with deadlier drugs is burning out the PHR staff.
“We’ve done a lot of suicide interventions… a lot of suicide interventions,” he said.
On top of burnt-out staff, a lack of funding means PHR has “incredibly limited” hours.
“What do people do after 4:00 p.m…. after Monday to Friday and on weekends?”
The solution to both issues is provincial support, he said.
“We have some worries as this pandemic goes on and the opioid crisis deepens. And if we don’t see any new innovative things happening in this province, we’re going to be in a really bad spot.”
In a statement, a Ministry of Health spokesperson said the government funds a variety of initiatives across the province “to ensure individuals who need help are able to access services when and where they need them.”
It mentioned a bevy of new programs and funding the government enacted in 2020 alone, including new addictions inpatient beds in Estevan and increased support for take-home Naloxone kits.
The statement said the government plans to open a new rapid access addictions clinic in North Battleford and up to 28 new detox beds in five cities across the province.
The provincial budget is expected in early April.