In recent weeks, the Yukon government has announced a sharp increase in opioid-related deaths. So far in 2020, a total of 13 people have died from drug overdoses, which is double the total number of deaths recorded in previous years. Moreover, 8 of the 13 deaths were a result of consumption of opioids and toxic amounts of fentanyl.
According to the Yukon Health Minister Pauline Frost, street drugs become more toxic recently due to the disruption of the regular supply during the pandemic. “We need to keep working to reduce the stigma of a drug-related death. We need to acknowledge the grief felt by families and friends and remember those who have died or have been left with a permanent injury as a result of a drug overdose,” she said.
Frost stated that Yukon will expand its drug testing capacity and provide drug users with kits for crack cocaine and injection use, in addition to methamphetamine pipes, as a harms reduction measure.
Due to the sharp increase in opioid-related deaths, local harm reduction experts have also urged the government to introduce safe drug supply and safe consumption sites to reduce the risk of overdose.
“Safe supply is an important tool when we’re talking about overdose and about harm reduction,” Bronte Renwick-Shields, the executive director of the Blood Ties Four Directions Centre in Whitehorse, said in his interview with the Whitehorse Star. “Access to safe supply will prevent deaths and prevent overdoses and, ultimately, we should be looking to save lives here.”
Currently, Blood Ties, a harm-reduction centre and outreach for drug users in Whitehorse offers drug testing for drug users to determine toxic levels of fentanyl before using. The centre also provides a needle exchange, safer crack kits and naloxone kits, which contain a medication that can quickly reverse overdoses.
“People may be using different substances than they were in the past, or using in different ways,” Renwick-Shields said.
Renwick-Shields has also stated that stay-at-home orders during the pandemic may have made it more likely for drug users to use drugs alone or increase their consumption.
It is also likely that the pandemic has altered the usual drug supply, with drug users resorting to consuming drugs they’re unfamiliar with and increasing their chances of overdose. Therefore, having a safe supply of drugs, a measure that has been successfully implemented by some countries, could help to prevent drug users from being affected by changes in their usual drug supply.
Katharine Smart, the president of the Yukon Medical Association, has also said there is evidence to suggest that creating a safe consumption site could be life-saving for drug users in Whitehorse.
“It makes sense to have it situated where people tend to congregate,” Smart said in her interview with the Whitehorse Star. She added that partnerships between First Nations governments and mental health hubs will be critical to implementing harms reductions strategies.