As B.C. marks another 2,272 toxic drug deaths, addictions doctor tells families: 'I am so sorry'
Physician says province needed urgent solutions years ago as decriminalization begins
More than 2,200 people died in British Columbia from toxic drugs over the course of 2022, making it the second deadliest year on record.
The province's coroner on Tuesday said there were 2,272 suspected drug toxicity deaths last year, just shy of the record 2,306 people who died in 2021. Most were middle-aged men inside private homes.
The numbers mean B.C. has seen more than six deaths every day, or around one person every four hours, for two years.
"To the families of the 45 individuals who have passed away in the last week alone ... to their friends and their colleagues and their communities and loved ones: my heart goes out to you and I'm so sorry that we're continuing to fail," said addiction medicine specialist Dr. Paxton Bach during an emotional news conference Tuesday.
"I hope that we can sit with that grief and that outrage. I hope that every citizen of the province reflects on this report and feels that outrage and uses that to drive the advocacy that is needed to generate change."
The statistics were released on the first day of B.C.'s drug decriminalization initiative, which makes possession of very small amounts of certain illicit drugs legal for those aged 18 and above.
B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the change is a "key first step," but "only one measure of many that are necessary to end this crisis."
'This has gone on far too long'
Bach spoke in stronger terms, saying the province needs a critical and comprehensive response plan with "everything" from a regulated safe supply, effective patient-centred treatment to investment in upstream drivers of substance use in order to prevent use.
"This has gone on far too long," said Bach, who is also co-medical director at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.
"It's an emergency and it demands an urgent response that's commensurate with the scale of damage that we're seeing and one that's reflective of the response that our citizens, our family members, our friends and our communities deserved from the beginning."
Bach said the health-care system has become more and more challenging as the crisis wears on.
"Every day, myself and my colleagues see patients in our offices or in hospitals who are telling us about their experiences navigating this toxic drug supply. … I hear of blackouts, assaults, seizures, infections, non-fatal overdoses and so many more consequences that we're not seeing in this report today," he said.
"For everyone of these deaths we see here today, there are 10 more individuals who are experiencing non-fatal overdoses, infections or many other consequences ... Not to mention the trauma, the incredible trauma, these deaths are inflicting."
Decriminalization far from enough on its own, advocates say
The federal minister of mental health and addictions touted the three-year decriminalization pilot project as "bold actions and significant policy change" to help "bring an end to [the] crisis," while advocates lamented it was just another small step against an emergency that has long demanded major action.
Under the new exemption, British Columbians over 18 can now carry up to 2.5 grams of cocaine, opioids, MDMA and methamphetamine for personal use. Officials say police have been instructed not to seize drugs from people, but instead offer "information about health and social supports."
Possession for the purpose of trafficking — or dealing — is still illegal.
The 2.5-gram threshold is about half the amount the province had requested when it first applied for the exemption in late 2021. Drug users have said both thresholds were far too low, given how most people consume substances.
Illicit drug toxicity remains the leading cause of unnatural death in the province, according to the B.C. Coroners Service, far above car crashes or suicides. Extreme concentrations of the powerful opioid fentanyl were detected in the vast majority of fatal overdoses.
More than 11,000 British Columbians have died due to toxic illicit drugs since a public health emergency was declared over drug deaths in April 2016.
The last two months of 2022 were among the deadliest of the year, with 182 people lost in November and another 210 in December.
The report said there is no indication prescribed safe supply contributed to illicit drug deaths.
The coroner had previously reported 2,224 people had died in 2021 based on preliminary statistics. That figure was updated Tuesday.
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