British Columbia

A year of overdoses: 7 charts that show the scope of B.C.'s drug crisis

There was little good news in British Columbia's drug crisis in 2016.

There were 914 apparent drug-related overdose deaths in 2016.

Some of the faces of British Columbians who've died after overdosing on fentanyl. (CBC)

There was little good news from British Columbia's drug crisis in 2016. 

Despite declaring a public health emergency in the spring, despite more and more funding announcements and despite naloxone becoming more and more available, the number of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. grew to record heights this year.

In 2016, 914 people died of confirmed or suspected overdoses in this province, with fentanyl-detected deaths appearing to be largely responsible for the increase.

Here are some numbers to help digest the scope of the crisis:

1. The 914 total is by far the most overdose deaths in recent B.C. history.

According to the BC Coroners Service, that's a 326 per cent increase from the average over the previous 10 years, and rise more than 1,100 per cent from 1990, when there were just 80 overdose deaths for the entire province.

2. It isn't a one-year blip.   

From 1999 to 2012, the number of deaths was never lower than 172, and never higher than 292. 

But in the four years since, that figure has steadily risen, creating a clear month-by-month trend — and a dramatic rise over the last quarter of 2016.

3. The crisis is affecting every age group and region in the province. 

While the previous profile of an overdose victim in B.C. was a middle-aged man on the Downtown Eastside, the opioid crisis has not discriminated by age or location, though it still overwhelmingly affects men more than women. 

4. It's enough people to fill a section of an NHL arena.

Collectively, 914 people become a very visible block when measured against other population metrics in British Columbia. To take just one example, there are around 500 seats in an average section of Rogers Arena or BC Place. 

5. The impact would be staggering if focused in a particular region of the province

The crisis has persisted in part because it hasn't been confined to one area of B.C. But what would the response be if the same number of overdose deaths happened in just one part of the province?

Here's a look at the population of municipalities in three different regions of B.C., compared to the province-wide drug overdose toll from 2016.


6. It's a number likely much larger than the amount of people in B.C. who die by suicide or alcoholism. 

Last decade in British Columbia, many more people died because of alcohol, or by suicide, than by drug overdoses. But that is likely no longer the case. In June, B.C.'s chief coroner said illicit drug overdoses had become the leading cause of unnatural death in the province, outpacing fatalities from vehicle crashes.

While publicly available figures are only available until 2011, alcohol-related deaths per year hovered between 310 and 450 last decade, while suicides were consistently between 461 and 531 per year. 

7. The 914 overdose deaths are more than all vehicle-related, winter-related, drowning-related, and fire deaths — combined.

For years, deaths involving motor vehicles eclipsed drug overdoses in B.C. by about 25 per cent per year. This year, drug overdose deaths will likely triple motor vehicle deaths. 

About the Author

Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.