Yukon still seeing 'upward trend' in opioid overdoses, says territory's top doctor

'This is just a dangerous time to be using street drugs. There is no safe street drug out there,' says Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon's chief medical officer of health.

Most opioid-related deaths in last few years were connected to fentanyl

Brendan Hanley, Yukon's chief medical officer of health, says the Whitehorse hospital emergency room is typically treating one to two patients each week for opioid overdoses. He says it can be heroin, methadone, or fentanyl — 'a real mix.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Yukon's top doctor says the number of opioid-related overdoses in Yukon continues to rise, with 16 confirmed deaths in the last two and a half years.

"That makes us a region with one of the highest rates associated with opioids in the country," said Dr. Brendan Hanley, the territory's chief medical officer of health.

Of those 16 deaths, the majority — 12 of them — were related to fentanyl, and two of those happened this year.

The death toll for 2018 may yet rise further, because it can take months to determine whether a death was opioid-related.

Not all overdoses are fatal, and Hanley said the Whitehorse hospital emergency room is typically treating one to two patients each week for opioid overdoses. He said it can be heroin, methadone, or fentanyl — "a real mix."

"Many, if not most, of these overdoses are also people who are taking multiple drugs," Hanley said. "Often cocaine is on board. Often, of course, alcohol is associated. Many times sleeping pills are also on board."

Yukon's coroner issued a warning about fentanyl in Yukon in April 2016, after confirming the territory's first fatality associated with the drug.

'Sharp increase' in overdoses between 2016 and 2017

Hanley said it's been a growing concern since then.

"If we're looking for a pattern, we saw a sharp increase in drug overdoses overall, presenting to the emergency [room], between 2016 and 2017. And we continue to see that upward trend," he said.

Yukon RCMP made their first seizure of fentanyl in April 2017 — a suspicious package containing 535 pills. (RCMP)

"This is just a dangerous time to be using street drugs. There is no safe street drug out there ... If one pill seems to be safe, the next one might be contaminated. There's no consistency. There's no predictability."

Patricia Bacon, executive director of the advocacy group Blood Ties Four Directions in Whitehorse, agrees but said the dangers are not new. 

"Drugs on the streets have always been, and always will be, toxic and dangerous," she said.

"I remember 10 years ago, the issue on the street then with powdered cocaine was that it was cut with something that was causing people to bleed out of their eye sockets. Like, it's always a highly risky activity to take illicit drugs."

According to Bacon, the opioid crisis is the product of many things, including failed drug policies, the stigma of addiction, and a general reluctance to talk frankly about drug use.

Patricia Bacon, of the advocacy group Blood Ties Four Directions, says the opioid crisis in Canada is a product of failed drug policies and stigma associated with drug use. (Mike Rudyk CBC)

"We're just overall as a community not talking about how we got into this mess in the first place, and what it's going to take to get us out," Bacon said.

Bacon argues that drug users are too often viewed as somehow morally deficient, and that drives them to the margins of society where they use in secret.

"It prevents pragmatic conversations about the human universality of drug use, and the fact that all cultures throughout time have had an interest in some sort of mind-altering substances, recreationally or ritually or whatever," Bacon said.

She said legalizing cannabis is an example of a step in the right direction, when it comes to drug policy. The question is whether having drugs "rooted in an illicit environment is inherently good or inherently bad for Canadians," she said.

"I would advocate that it's inherently bad for Canadians."

With files from James Miller

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