Methadone returning to Whitehorse’s jail

Methadone is once again going to be offered at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. Three years after inmates started being forced off the drug, justice officials say they are now equipped to start offering it again.

Methadone is once again going to be offered at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

Three years after inmates started being forced off the drug, justice officials say they are now equipped to start offering it again.

In March 2012, the department cancelled the program, which started in 2008. That prompted a tongue-lashing from advocates and the president of the Yukon Medical Association, who called the decision “inhumane.”

At the time, the jail didn’t have the means to continue the program safely, spokesperson Caitlin Kerwin said Thursday.

“We had contract nurses, didn’t have a nurse manager on site, so didn’t have that kind of infrastructure in place that helps to ensure the proper operation of a methadone program, which it still is something that could be deadly if not managed properly.”

Now they will, Kerwin said.

In jail, methadone is administered by nurses and managed by doctors. Both have to have specialized training and certification, Kerwin said.

The jail’s physician is getting the training in the fall and that’s the last step before the program can be fully up and running.

At the time the program was yanked, the jail was using contract nurses as opposed to permanent staff. The amount of turnover made training nurses difficult, she said.

The jail has stopped using contract nurses over the last year.

According to Patricia Bacon, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions, Yukon was the only jurisdiction in the country where methadone wasn’t an option for inmates. That includes both jails and federal prisons.

“The fact that they’ve turned the policy around is a humane response, it is the right response and it is about time,” she said.

Methadone is typically used to treat people who are addicted to opiates like heroin and morphine.

It is a liquid that is drunk. It doesn’t get someone high but can satisfy that part of the brain that is craving drugs, Bacon said.

“What it allows the person to do is to get on with the rest of their life. It allows them to be able to go to work every day, have a job, not worry about how they’re going to feed a $100 to $200 a day illicit drug habit.”

People spend less time in the justice system because they are not out committing crimes as a way of getting money, she said.

The risk of things like HIV or hepatitis C is also greatly reduced because people are taken off of injection drugs.

“We’re talking about long-term health outcomes for Canadians,” Bacon said.

The issue of methadone in the jail came up in court this week.

Yukoner Mike Bland is facing drug charges in territorial court including possession of cocaine and ecstasy for the purpose of trafficking.

The Yukon Human Rights Commission was concerned that if Bland is convicted and sent to jail he would not be able to continue his methadone program.

Julie Jai, the acting director of the commission, said she’s glad the government has reinstated the methadone program.

The lack of a program at the jail is a human rights issue, she said. “Somebody who is on heart medication and got sent to WCC wouldn’t have that prescription suddenly yanked because they were in jail,” Jai said.

“So to have that done because this particular physical disability is an addiction appears on its face to be discriminatory treatment.”

In Bland’s case, the WCC has agreed to work with his local doctor if necessary until the jail’s doctor is trained.

Under the jail’s new program the doctor will not be giving out new prescriptions for methadone, but will be available to help people who already have a prescription and receive the doctor’s approval.

According to Health Canada’s best practices, keeping patients on the drug should be the goal of treatment.

“Rather than emphasizing abstinence from all drugs – including eventual tapering from methadone – as the primary goal of treatment, methadone maintenance programs should focus instead on maintaining clients/patients on methadone for as long as they continue to benefit from treatment.”

In the last five years, an average of 1.5 inmates a year have come to the Whitehorse jail with a prescription for methadone.

Across the territory, 77 people were on it last year, according to the Health Department.

During the years where there wasn’t a methadone program at the jail inmates were forced to detox.

The detox involves taking patients through withdrawal under medical supervision. Some drugs can be administered to ease the symptoms, according to the department.

“It’s not like switching from one high blood pressure medication to another. It is withdrawing from the drug that your body has gotten used to. So it is a cold turkey approach,” Jai said.

Amidst criticism, the department and then-justice minister Mike Nixon leaned on many explanations for cancelling the program. Nixon said the detox program was working.

Staffing issues were always mentioned, but so was the concern that the drug could be used as “currency” inside the jail and that inmates were using the methadone while taking other drugs.

“In short, the inmates in the jail, as a rule, are not compliant individuals in adhering to the MMT (methadone maintenance treatment) program and therefore from a risk perspective are not suitable for continuing in a methadone program,” Justice spokesperson Dan Cable said in 2013.

Kerwin said she couldn’t comment on whether the department has changed its mind about those concerns.

The current justice minister, Brad Cathers, declined to speak on the subject.

Contact Ashley Joannou at