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With thousands of N.W.T. evacuees in Alberta, local experts fear impact of toxic drug crisis

Doctors and advocates are distributing information for N.W.T. wildfire evacuees, telling them where to access opioid agonist therapies in Alberta. Amid the toxic drug crisis, they fear stigma and a lack of information could increase drug poisonings and deaths.

Advocates have created resources to help recovering drug users arriving in Alberta

People line up with their luggage in a parking lot outside the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife.

A small group of health-care workers in Alberta is working to inform wildfire evacuees from the Northwest Territories about where to access common medications for opioid-use disorder in Calgary and Edmonton.

Missing even a day of medications causes withdrawal symptoms, while several days without increases the risk of relapsing for otherwise stable patients — which means more people at risk of dying from the toxic street drug supply, says Dr. Kate Colizza, an addiction medicine and internal medicine physician in Calgary.

"It's not the type of medication where a lot of people can plan ahead or have extras available," said Colizza, who created fliers listing opioid agonist therapy (OAT) clinics and programs in the two cities.

"The issue with a lot of these medications — like Suboxone, methadone, Kadian — is that … you have to go to the pharmacy every day to pick up and take your medication."

Thousands of people have fled Yellowknife and surrounding First Nations since last week, filling evacuation centres in Calgary, Edmonton, and surrounding areas. In the middle of a toxic drug crisis that killed at least 7,328 people across Canada last year, experts and advocates fear displacement due to wildfires could lead to more toxic drug poisonings and deaths.

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Colizza and her colleagues began putting together information for the fliers as soon as they heard evacuees would be arriving in Alberta. The goal is to make it easier for people to access care when they do not have an Alberta health plan and physicians cannot access their health records.

After she shared the information on social media, Colizza said advocates on the ground started printing out the fliers and distributing them at evacuee reception centres.

Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said the group has found someone to translate the information into Cree — and is still searching for a Dene translator — to make it more accessible to people whose first language is not English.

"During stressful situations, we go back to what we know will make us feel better," said Schulz. "There's a high risk of even people who haven't used substances [for a long time] using again."

Yellowknife wildfire evacuees pour into Alberta town after harrowing 700-km journey

3 days ago

Duration 2:55

High Level, Alta., is scrambling to take in droves of N.W.T. residents ordered to leave Yellowknife and other communities as dangerous wildfires approach. Calgary is also bracing to receive as many as 5,000 people.

A preventable crisis

Colizza fears a lack of available information about where to access medication could be compounded by the stigma associated with drug use.

"There's still quite a lot of stigma if you're using drugs even if you're on some of these medications," she said. "Even though there are reception areas set up, it's perhaps not something that people will feel safe asking about or even know who to ask."

Colizza has also been trying to reach physicians in the N.W.T. to determine how many people in the region have a history of accessing OAT, in an effort to find out what the demand would be at Alberta reception and evacuation centres. But in the chaos of the wildfires and ongoing evacuations, this information is not yet available.

Wildfires and other disasters fuelled by climate change are also expected to disrupt street drug supply chains, Schulz noted, which in turn will lead to further toxicity in street drug supplies and more deaths — a pattern that was observed at the height of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

"Preventing the level of climate change we have right now is going to be very difficult and take a lot of effort, but preventing the drug poisoning crisis is political," Schulz said. "We know what to do and the solutions are simple."

She echoed her own and other expert and advocates' calls for a regulated, safe drug supply in Alberta and across Canada, "so people can have known substances, in known quantities, from known sources."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brishti Basu

Senior writer

Brishti Basu is a senior writer with CBCNews.ca based in Victoria. Before joining CBC, her in-depth coverage of health care, housing and sexual violence at Capital Daily was nominated for several national and provincial journalism awards. She was deputy editor at New Canadian Media and has been a freelance journalist for numerous publications including National Geographic, VICE, The Tyee, and The Narwhal.

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