A nationwide opioid crisis has taken a back seat to the impact of alcohol in the Northwest Territories.

Hospital visits in the Northwest Territories due to alcohol poisoning far exceed overdoses due to Fentanyl, according to Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola. NNSL file photo

The rate of hospital admissions for alcohol is 13 times that of opioids, the NWT’s chief public health officer, Dr. Kami Kandola, told News/North.

Kandola added there have been eight opioid-related deaths recorded since 2016, five of which were that year. There was one in 2017, two in 2018, and none recorded so far this year. However, only one of these deaths was related to fentanyl.

“Alcohol plays a larger role not just in the health-care system. (Because) there’s the health-care system and the societal impact,” Kandola said, explaining that alcohol is the country’s costliest in terms of wider economic challenges to health care, lost productivity and the court system.

Alcohol represented 80 per cent of substance use hospitalizations in 2017-18. Ideally, the chief public health officer said prevention would be the best strategy to address alcohol addiction.

“It’s something we need to address in a systematic manner,” she said, explaining there should be a “poly-substance” approach including all substances, but especially alcohol.

“We should be consulting with Indigenous governments, NGOs, other stakeholders and say, ‘How can we develop community alcohol management programs that are actually going to make an impact?’”

In the NWT, 43 per cent of residents are heavy drinkers. For women, that means four or more alcoholic beverages in a sitting at least once a month, while for men, that is five or more. The national average is 19 per cent, she said.

RCMP report no fentanyl seizures

Despite its high profile in the national conversation around addiction, Northwest Territories RCMP haven’t had a suspected fentanyl seizure since November 2016.

“However, RCMP would like to remind people that fentanyl is a highly potent and addictive synthetic opioid pain relief medication that is estimated to be up to 100 times more potent than morphine,” police spokesperson Julie Plourde wrote over email.

“The effects of fentanyl are unpredictable. Users have no idea of the level of purity or the potency of what they take. Any dosage of fentanyl is potentially lethal,” she added.

Coroner tentatively reports decline of opioid-related deaths

Chief Coroner Cathy Menard said the NWT has witnessed opioid-related deaths. However, she notes a decrease, with a caveat: the territory’s small population can mean numbers can rise and fall quickly.

In 2015 and 2016, she said opioid-related deaths numbered five for each year. In 2018, there were two.

“That’s good. What is 2019 going to bring? What does 2019 look like? We’re still waiting for results from a lot of our cases (this year),” she said.

With that in mind, she credits RCMP and public awareness for the decline, and urges residents to practise caution.

“There’s no such thing as a safe street drug,” she said. “You don’t know how it’s made and you don’t know what’s in it.”

Addiction and its impact — where alcohol plays a central part — is a regular occurrence in her work.

“We find alcohol in all manners of our deaths,” Menard said, whether it be through alcohol poisoning or the health effects of long-term use.

In the past 10 years, 67 alcohol toxicity deaths have come through her office, which Menard describes as “a lot.

“Addictions is a huge concern for the Northwest Territories,” she explained. “We’ve seen so much of it and we’ve seen our numbers climb over the last 10 years. It is very frightening to see.”


Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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