The Yukon’s chief medical officer of health is calling on the next territorial government to update the territory’s Yukon Opioid Action Plan, which ended in 2020.
Brendan Hanley spoke at an April 22 press conference about the opioid crisis in the territory. He was joined by Yukon chief coroner Heather Jones, Whitehorse RCMP Detachment Commander Inspector Lindsay Elis; Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill; and Blood Ties Four Directions Executive Director Bronte Renwick-Shields in calling for changes to address the situation.
While a renewed plan would be a first step, Hanley put forward three measures he argued should also be considered.
They would include introducing a safer drug supply through prescription opioids for those struggling, establishing a safe consumption site and decriminalizing small amounts of opioids for personal use.
“This may seem like it’s endorsing or supporting drug use, but in fact what happens is that overdoses are prevented and people do get connected to supports, medical care counselling, access to treatment,” Hanley said of the safe consumption sites, going on to argue the need for harm reduction measures in the territory.
“This is a persistent public health crisis that has been overshadowed by COVID-19,” he said. “Since January 2020, we have seen 17 opioid deaths in Yukon; 16 since the COVID-19 pandemic began and seven in the first four months of this year.”
When asked about timelines Hanley acknowledged the need for community consultation to happen, while also stating that launching a safe consumption pilot project within six months would be “completely reasonable.”
His comments came after Jones presented figures showing the seven opioid-related deaths in the territory so far this year. Two of those were associated with carfentanil.
Since 2016, there have been 40 opioid deaths in the territory.
“In these early months of 2021 seven more Yukon families are suffering the devastation of losing their loved ones to opioid-involved deaths,” she said. “Our communities are grieving. We can no longer be blinded by the stigma surrounding drug use and overdoses. We must recognize that without a safe drug supply, the risk to individual users is extreme and the heartbreak will continue.”
She also described the territory’s drug supply as becoming “more and more unstable, and deadlier.”
“It is my hope that we can notice and hear what these numbers are saying,” Jones said. “As I attempt to give voice to 40 people, I cannot bypass the lost hopes and dreams and the shattered families who have been dealt a lifetime of grief.”
Hanley described the rate of opioid deaths as “continuing at a terrifying rate.” There’s been a number of efforts and improvements in recent years that would have made the crisis worse, he said, highlighting treatment programs, drug checking availability, increased hours of operation by the Outreach Van and expanded mental wellness programs in communities, among others.
“These are all really important to acknowledge,” he said, before going on to reiterate his call that more needs to be done. Renwick-Shields described 2021 as an “excruciating, heart-breaking year” in supporting Hanley’s call for more action.
Expressing condolences to the loved ones of those who have died, she highlighted the services offered through Blood Ties, including drug testing, and encouraged anyone who needs those services to reach out to the organization.
Meanwhile, Ellis said police have seen the impact of the opioid crisis in the territory first-hand.
RCMP have administered naloxone — which counteracts the effects of opioid overdose — 26 times over the past year.
“That is the RCMP alone. Not our other first responder partners, not members of the public assisting their fellow Yukoners — just the RCMP,” she said.
There’s also been a 32 per cent increase in calls for service that are believed to be related to fentanyl use, she said.
Ellis credited the recent relationship between RMCP and Blood Ties in helping RCMP better understand the issues.
She noted the RCMP are committed to working with other agencies on innovative solutions to address the problem.
Bill said her thoughts, too, were with the loved ones of those who have died.
“It’s been too many people,” she said, pointing out that opioids do not discriminate and the crisis is not going away.
She then called for “swift action” that would establish a safe consumption sites and put harm reduction measures in place for the safety of all Yukoners.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org