Yukon's top doctor is pushing for the next territorial government to establish safe consumption sites for drug users as a way to slow the growing death toll from overdoses.
"The pace of opioid deaths is continuing at a terrifying rate," Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brendan Hanley said at a news conference on Thursday morning.
"By bringing people to a safe place to use drugs, they're no longer using drugs alone or away from care. And repeatedly with these deaths we see a majority using drugs alone."
Hanley spoke alongside Heather Jones, Yukon's chief coroner, as well as representatives from the RCMP, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Blood Ties Four Directions, a nonprofit organization that focuses on harm reduction and providing supports for people who use substances, .
Jones announced that there have been seven deaths in Yukon so far this year due to opioid use. She said they all involved fentanyl, and that two were also associated with carfentanil, a powerful fentanyl analogue.
The latest deaths follow a "significant increase" in the number of opioid deaths last year in Yukon, she said. Jones also said that 40 people have died in Yukon from opioid use since 2016.
"From what we are seeing, the drug supply in the Yukon is becoming more and more unstable, and deadlier," Jones said.
"It is my hope that we can notice and hear what these numbers are saying. 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 said the time is right for the next territorial government to renew efforts to address the opioid crisis, and try new approaches — including safe consumption sites.
"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," he said.
"I think it's taken us some time to get here but I think we need to try this out for Yukon. We will not know what role it can play to save lives here until we take on some risk by trying this out."
WATCH | Officials address opioid use in Yukon:
Hanley said he'd like to see a pilot project up and running within six months. He also suggested that Yukon consider a "safe supply" approach, wherein 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 other jurisdictions, including B.C.
He also recommends the territorial government look at decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs, by requesting an exemption from certain federal laws.
RCMP confirms carfentanil in territory
RCMP Insp. Lindsay Ellis, detachment commander of Yukon RCMP, also spoke at Thursday's news conference and said that police have seen firsthand how the opioid crisis in the territory has deepened.
She said officers have administered naloxone — a drug that counteracts the effects of opioid overdose — on 26 separate occasions since April 2020.
"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.
She also said that police have confirmed the presence of carfentanil in the territory, referring to a bust made in January in Whitehorse. She said two people from B.C. had set up shop in a Whitehorse hotel with 11 grams of carfentanil mixed with caffeine and "packaged for distribution to our communities."
"Almost 11 grams of carfentanil could be distributed to no less than 100 Yukoners, with deadly consequences," she said.
'A crisis that is not going away'
Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill, also speaking at Thursday's news conference, echoed Hanley's call for safe consumption sites and other harm-reduction measures to address the opioid crisis.
She says it's time for "swift action."
"I feel like I've been saying the same thing for a long time now — this is a crisis that is not going away," Bill said. "Harm-reduction measures can save lives."
Bronte Renwick-Shields of Blood Ties Four Directions also spoke in support of Hanley's recommendations.
"This has been an exceptionally heartbreaking year, in regards to the overdose crisis — and it's only April," she said.
"We need a systemic response."