Yukon dialogue on opioid crisis wraps up with calls for change

Donald MacPherson of the Canadian Drug Policy said safe supply and supervised consumption policies are part of a broader move away from punitive approaches to illicit drugs.

Overdose crisis a direct result of drug policies, expert says

Donald MacPherson, who wrote the City of Vancouver's Four Pillars Drug Strategy, said the approach was never fully implemented. (Canadian Drug Policy Coalition)

A drug policy expert says the Yukon government's promise to implement a supervised drug consumption site and safe drug supply policy are "heartening."

The two policies were part of the NDP's conditions for supporting the Yukon Liberals in the Legislative Assembly. Under terms of the two parties' confidence and supply agreement, the safe consumption site is to be set up by August and the safe supply should be in place within the next six months.

Donald MacPherson of the Canadian Drug Policy said such policies are part of a broader move away from punitive approaches to illicit drugs.

"It's absolutely critical that we move towards a system that does try and protect the citizens of this country from being unnecessarily killed by a toxic drug supply," he said. 

Yukon has seen 37 deaths caused by opioids in the last five years. Twenty-nine of those involved fentanyl.

At the same time, MacPherson said the COVID-19 pandemic has both overshadowed the opioid crisis and made it worse.

Crisis a product of drug policy

The increasing danger of the illicit drug supply is a direct result of Canada's drug policies, MacPherson said. Organized crime has moved toward potent opioids like fentanyl because it's cheaper and easier to ship into the North American market.

"It's our drug policy that creates the opportunity for this market to exist," MacPherson said. "So movement towards safe supply, supervised consumption services are ways of trying to slowly move out of that situation and give people access to pharmaceutical alternatives to the illegal market that will allow them to continue their lives and seek help if they need it."

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and Blood Ties Four Directions held an online dialogue called Getting To Tomorrow: Ending The Overdose Crisis, which wrapped up Thursday. It included policymakers, experts, healthcare workers, First Nations, police and people with lived experience.

MacPherson said he hopes the dialogue spurs more action to develop policies and services that help people who use illicit drugs.

He said policies such as safe supply, harm reduction and even decriminalization are far less controversial than they once were.

"Even the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police have called for decriminalization of simple possession of drugs," MacPherson said. "Public health folks have called for change for many years now. And we really need public support to make some of these support changes." 

Written by Chris Windeyer with files from Jane Sponagle and Elyn Jones