‘Each one of these deaths is a tragedy’

‘Each one of these deaths is a tragedy’

Illegal drugs have claimed the lives of 25 Yukonans for the second straight year, according to the territory’s chief coroner.

Of Ethan Lycan Lang on December 16, 2022

Illegal drugs have claimed the lives of 25 Yukonans for the second straight year, according to the territory’s chief coroner.

“Each of these deaths is a tragedy, and our communities continue to grapple with the grief and pain associated with the loss of life from the drug use health crisis,” the Yukon Coroner’s Service said Thursday afternoon.

In an area with around 40,000 inhabitants, these numbers are particularly striking.

“Our territory continues to lead the nation in toxic illicit drug-related deaths per capita,” said a press release.

The area declared a “substance-related public health emergency” last January following a “sharp increase in overdose-related deaths,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in a press release at the time. Within a month of that announcement, opioids had caused the deaths of nine Yukoners in 2022.

Although the government considers the use of all “toxic illicit drugs” to be part of the public health emergency, opioids are a concern.

Twenty of the 25 drug-related deaths that year involved opioids — fentanyl, the opioid most commonly found in those deaths, was implicated in 19.

Cocaine, benzodiazepines and alcohol have also been confirmed in a number of deaths, often in combination with opioids.

The area has recorded 76 opioid-related deaths since April 2016. More than half of these deaths occurred in the past two years.

“This crisis affects all of us in the Yukon,” Chief Coroner Heather Jones said.

In light of these latest numbers, the Coroner’s Service warned Yukoners to be cautious about drug use at this time of year.

“Although the holidays can be a time of celebration, we know that many people experience difficulties and may be at risk during this time of year when they are alone and using such substances,” she said.

“It’s important that we are there for one another and offer our support and our kindness to one another.”

Jones urged anyone tempted to use or struggle with drugs to reach out to family and friends and use one of the territory’s support services.

Although she said the area is still firmly in crisis, she acknowledged positive steps have been taken to combat it.

In September 2021, the Yukon government opened a monitored site for people to use toxic drugs in a safe environment.

The Sixth Avenue location near Cook Street offers a range of harm reduction and social services such as drug testing, medical supplies, safe equipment, counseling and access to naloxone, a fast-acting drug that temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

The Yukon’s opioid treatment service can be reached at 668-2552 and the Yukon’s Overdose Outreach team at 333-9717.

All communities also have access to services through mental wellbeing and substance use centers in Carmacks, Dawson City, Haines Junction, Carcross or Watson Lake.

Jones said preventing future deaths requires understanding and community.

“Now more than ever we need to remember to show our compassion, kindness and support for anyone struggling with drug use,” she said.

“It is important that we all work together to help one another as we mourn these losses across our territory.

“The Yukon Coroner’s Service extends our deepest condolences to all of the families and communities who continue to be so badly affected by these tragic deaths,” Jones said.

She also spoke at the Hospice Yukon’s Lights of Life meeting early Thursday afternoon.

Jones acknowledged the emergency of drug use in her presentation, saying that lives lost to opioids and other illicit drugs have contributed to the grief felt in Yukon communities at this time of year.

Thursday’s statement included these details on this year’s and recent deaths:

20 cases were confirmed to be opioids, with fentanyl present in 19 of the cases and cocaine in combination with an opioid in 14 cases, with one case pending full analysis;

• Benzodiazapines or “benzos” were confirmed in six cases;

• Cocaine and its use were identified in five cases without the involvement of opioids: and

• Alcohol was identified as a factor in at least seven cases.

Of the 25 deaths in 2021:

• 24 of these cases were opioid-related and fentanyl was found in all of these cases;

• Cocaine was involved in 16 of these cases;

• Benzos were present in five of these cases;

• Alcohol was identified as a factor in 11 cases; and

• Carfentanil was present in two cases.

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