As British Columbia approaches the four-year anniversary of the public health emergency related to illicit drug overdoses, the BC Coroners Service (BCCS) and partners are renewing calls for improved access to a regulated, safer drug supply in the province.
The renewed calls come after the BCCS reported that there were 981 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019 – representing an average of 2.7 deaths per day.
And while the total number of illicit deaths last year represents a 36% decrease from similar deaths in 2018, the number is “virtually identical” to the number of those who died in 2016 – the year the provincial health emergency was declared.
Lapointe noted that the number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019 “remains higher than motor vehicle incidents, suicides and homicides combined.”
The province, she said, “continues to bear the heaviest toll of the impacts of the unpredictable, profit-driven, illicit drug market.”
The report highlighted what officials call a continuing trend wherein middle-aged men are over-represented, with more than three-quarters of the suspected overdose deaths involving males, and 71% involving people aged 30 to 59.
As well, 87% of deaths continue to occur indoors, with more people dying on the days immediately following the issuance of income assistance payments than all other days in the year.
The report also noted that over four in every five deaths in 2019 had fentanyl detected in post-mortem testing.
“The decrease in the number of British Columbians dying from this crisis is encouraging and indicates that our harm-reduction measures to keep people alive are working,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s provincial health officer.
However, she added, “We are in no way out of this crisis yet. We’re dealing with addiction. And addiction is an illness, a health condition.”
Still, “the measures we are taking to ensure access to services are there for people who use drugs when they are ready and able to start their path to recovery,” she said. “And in the meantime, we need to change our approach so that people who use drugs are able to seek help without the fear of being charged criminally and with access to a pharmaceutical alternative, instead of what is clearly a toxic street-drug supply.”
Despite a decrease of illicit drug toxicity deaths over the past year, the number of non-fatal events plateaued in 2019, according to data from BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS).
“While we’re seeing a decrease in deaths, data from BC Emergency Health Services shows we were called to the same high level of overdoses in 2019,” said Lance Stephenson, director of patient care delivery with BCEHS. “We are still getting called for more than 65 overdoses a day in BC. We’re still in a crisis.”
The report found the municipalities experiencing the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019 are Vancouver, Surrey, Victoria, and Abbotsford.
“Today’s release by the BC Coroners Service of the 2019 drug toxicity deaths is a sharp reminder of lives cut too short, and of devastated families and communities left behind in the wake of this collective tragedy,” said BC Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy. “We mourn each and every person lost, not as a number but as a person whose life matters. No one should have to experience the pain of losing a loved one to the ongoing fentanyl-poisoning crisis.”
Darcy said that while she is “very encouraged to see the number of overdose deaths going down for the first time since this crisis began,” the provincial government “is committed now more than ever to keep our foot firmly on the gas, to keep going and keep acting on what the evidence shows us is working.”
According to the report, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority had the highest rate of illicit drug toxicity deaths (23 deaths per 100,000 individuals), followed by Northern Health Authority (22.5 deaths per 100,000 individuals) in 2019.
Overall, the rate in BC was 19 deaths per 100,000 individuals in 2019.