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23 people died in Yukon last year from substance use, and 3 so far this year

A view of downtown Whitehorse. The territory's chief coroner says there were 23 deaths last year in the Yukon related to substance use, and all but one of them happened in the capital. (Paul Tukker/CBC - image credit)
A view of downtown Whitehorse. The territory's chief coroner says there were 23 deaths last year in the Yukon related to substance use, and all but one of them happened in the capital. (Paul Tukker/CBC - image credit)

Yukon's chief coroner says 23 people died in the territory in 2023 from substance use, and all but one of those deaths happened in Whitehorse.

Coroner Heather Jones also said on Friday that substance use is believed to be a factor in three deaths so far this year.

"I am urging all Yukoners to remain aware of the substance use health emergency we continue to be faced with, and to take steps to address this with urgency," Jones said in a news release.

The territory has been grappling with an ongoing drug crisis, and the death rate in 2023 was nearly on par with the year before. In 2022, the coroner counted 24 deaths related to substance use.

Of the 23 deaths in 2023, Jones said that 20 of them involved opioids and 19 of those invovled fentanyl. Cocaine was found in all but two of the 23 cases, and alcohol was also a factor in "many" of the deaths, Jones said. Benzodiazepines and flurofentanyl were also found in some cases.

"What these findings show is that the source of these illicit drugs is inconsistent, and Yukoners need to be incredibly careful when they choose to use," Jones said.

Of the 20 people whose deaths last year involved opioids, Jones said more than half (13) were male, and more than half (14) identified as First Nations. The deceased were in their early 20s to mid-60s, and Jones said people in their 30s were the "most profoundly affected."

The coroner did not provide details about the three people who have died so far this year related to substance use. She said toxicology results are pending for all three, though "evidence confirms that substance use contributed to these deaths."

The latest statistics come almost exactly two years after the Yukon government declared a substance use emergency in the territory, and five months after it presented its 60-page strategy to deal with that emergency. The strategy, developed by the territorial government in partnership with the RCMP, the chief medical officer, and the Council of Yukon First Nations, was presented as "an urgent call to action," with 43 recommended actions to deal with the ongoing crisis.

Some Yukon First Nations have also declared their own local substance use emergencies.

In a written statement on Friday afternoon, Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee called the latest statistics "deeply troubling," and said her government remains committed to tackling the issue "with urgency and compassion."

"We understand the complex nature of addiction and the devastating effects of a poison drug supply. It is imperative that we work together to provide effective support and solutions," McPhee said.

"I urge Yukoners to be vigilant and exercise extreme caution in the face of this inconsistent and poisonous drug supply."