Prioritize 'safe supply' in opioid crisis, says Yukon harm-reduction group

·3 min read
'We see safe supply as having a wider reach in preventing overdoses in the Yukon,' said Bronte Renwick-Shields, seen here at a news conference last week about Yukon's opioid crisis. (Philippe Morin - image credit)
'We see safe supply as having a wider reach in preventing overdoses in the Yukon,' said Bronte Renwick-Shields, seen here at a news conference last week about Yukon's opioid crisis. (Philippe Morin - image credit)

Providing a safe supply of prescription alternatives is "urgently needed" and should be the top priority in dealing with Yukon's opioid crisis, according to the executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions.

The local non-profit group focuses on harm-reduction programs for drug users and other vulnerable populations.

Last week, the organization's executive director sat alongside Yukon's chief coroner and chief medical officer of health to call on the next territorial government to get serious about opioids. So far in 2021, seven Yukoners have died from overdoses involving fentanyl.

Chief medical officer Dr. Brendan Hanley urged the government to establish safe consumption sites as well as a "safe supply" program.

Bronte Renwick-Shields, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions, says both are worthwhile initiatives — but safe supply is the most needed.

Safe supply refers to programs wherein drug users are able to access prescription opioids such as hydromorphone as an alternative to potentially toxic and dangerous street drugs. It's a concept that's being tried out in B.C.

Renwick-Shields thinks such a program would have a more immediate impact in Yukon than setting up a safe consumption site.

"We're not a big city like Vancouver. We don't have a dense population. And we know that folks are less likely to access a safe consumption site if it isn't within a short distance of their home," she said on Monday.

"We see safe supply as having a wider reach in preventing overdoses in the Yukon. And while I see both initiatives as needed, I think if we're going to prioritize one, I think that the implementation of safe supply is urgently needed."

Hydromorphone, a type of opioid, is pictured at a managed opioid program in Ottawa, Ont.
Hydromorphone, a type of opioid, is pictured at a managed opioid program in Ottawa, Ont. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Premier Sandy Silver, who has yet to appoint his new cabinet, told CBC on Friday that his government will take action.

"We developed an opioid action plan during our last mandate that increased the supports and interventions. And we want to build on that," he said.

"In our campaign, we committed to safe supply and also supervised consumption sites. And so this is absolutely a priority for us."

Safe consumption site 'can be very simple,' advocate says

Yukon's chief medical officer has suggested that a safe consumption site for drug users could reasonably be set up as a pilot program in Yukon within six months.

Sara Blyth, executive director of B.C.'s Overdose Prevention Society, says that's definitely realistic. Her organization operates two overdose prevention sites in Vancouver.

"Oh yeah. You can have one tomorrow if you really wanted to," she said.

"You can just set up a medic tent like they do in the military, and make sure that people can come and just have someone observe them. It doesn't have to be really complicated. It can be very simple. I think if you make it complicated, then it's harder to achieve."

Blyth says a safe consumption site can have a huge impact. She suggests setting it up in such a way that users can feel comfortable going there, and are interacting with people who understand their experience.

"In some ways, it builds a community where you're not just a person, you know, in an alleyway or your bathroom or somewhere using alone. And you're able to use together and be able to not only survive, but to get a lot of the benefits of of being able to be part of a community," she said.

Blyth dismisses any suggestion that safe consumption sites promote or increase illicit drug use.

"Well, we haven't seen that in Vancouver, at least at our site," she said.

"So I would suggest that that's not an issue. And I think that just thinking that way will lead to more deaths of people."