Commentary: How Yukon’s federal election candidates would tackle the opioid crisis

Esther Armstrong

The overdose crisis continues to have a devastating impact on families and communities across Canada. In 2018 alone there were 4,460 deaths related to opioids across the country; one life lost every two hours. These numbers represent friends, parents, children, partners — every person lost was loved and brought value to their community.

The Yukon is not immune to the crisis. In fact, the per capita rate of Yukoners lost to overdose since 2016 is comparable to that of British Columbia, the hardest hit Canadian province or territory.

Aug. 31 marked a noteworthy event — International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD). In recognition of this day, on Friday Aug. 30, Blood Ties Four Directions Centre held a naloxone training blitz on the corner of Main and Front Street. Our goal was to train 100 people, five for every life lost in the Yukon since 2016. The community support for this event was incredible and we are happy to share that 88 people were trained and Whitehorse now has 88 more people able to recognize and respond to an opioid overdose and save a life.

However, although front-line harm reduction programs like naloxone distribution, fentanyl testing, and safer consumption sites play an important role in the opioid crisis and have saved lives, without a regulated drug supply in the market these programs are Band-Aid solutions for a much larger issue.

As such, in light of both International Overdose Awareness Day and the upcoming federal election, Blood Ties reached out to the local candidates running in the federal election and asked them questions about their position, policy or platform on the opioid crisis. Below are excerpts from their responses; we have posted their answers in full on our Facebook page, Blood Ties Four Directions Centre.

We asked: There are different legal perspectives on how we can end overdose deaths in Canada by changing how we regulate illegal drugs. Do you support:

• Decriminalization of personal possession, use, and acquisitions of all drugs and treating drug use as a health issue and not a crime;

• Legalization of all drugs and regulations of the drug supply in Canada to ensure safe access to drugs for those who use them;

• Something else; or,

• The status quo.

Larry Bagnell, Liberal Party of Canada:

“There are success stories with decriminalization, such as Portugal, that has decreased deaths and increased people seeking treatment. My strategy would be to try and convince my caucus members to study those countries that have experimented with decriminalizing or legalizing drug use…to see which is the most successful way to reduce harm and deaths and increase voluntary requests for treatment. I definitely believe that dangerous harmful drugs should be regulated”.

Justin Lemphers, New Democratic Party:

“An NDP government will declare a public health emergency and commit to working with all levels of government, experts and Canadians to end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction”.

Lenore Morris, Green Party of Canada:

“I believe that this [decriminalization] is likely the best option but that it must be combined with a very significant increase in public education and addiction treatment programming”.

Jonas Smith, Conservative Party of Canada:

“I personally believe there are merits to treating addictions (to illegal drugs) as a health issue as opposed a criminal issue…however I believe that it is very much a criminal issue when it comes to those who traffic in known, addictive and harmful substances and that every effort should be made to give law enforcement the tools they require to put these predators behind bars”.

We encourage you to view their full responses to find out where your local candidates stand on this important public health issue. The opioid overdose crisis in Canada affects everyone.

Esther Armstrong is the scaling up coordinator at Blood Ties Four Directions Centre. The federal election in Canada is happening Oct. 21

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