British Columbia

207 lives lost to illicit toxic drugs in B.C. in first month of 2022: coroner

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, the 207 deaths is the third highest ever recorded in the province in a calendar month, an average of more than six deaths per day.

No deaths were reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites

Moms Stop the Harm advocates walk down Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in April 2021 to mark five years since a public health emergency was declared over B.C’s overdose crisis. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

British Columbia's horrifying illicit drug overdose crisis continues to claim several lives every day, with the latest statistics from the B.C. Coroners Service showing 207 people died in January due to toxic substances.

The numbers, released Friday, reflect the third highest number of deaths recorded in a calendar month — an average of more than six deaths every day. 

January is the fourth consecutive month in which more than 200 lives were suspected lost to the illicit drug supply. In November and December, 210 and 215 deaths were recorded, respectively, averaging about seven deaths per day.

In 2021, a total of 2,224 illicit-drug deaths were recorded, making it the deadliest year to date. The latest numbers show 2022 could be on track to be as, or more, catastrophic.

The majority of people dying, according to the data, are males between the ages of 30 and 59, while 85 per cent of the deaths occurred indoors.

Greater toxicity

While illicit-drug toxicity death rates remain high throughout the province, the latest data shows there have been notable increases in smaller- and medium-sized communities.

Eleven recorded deaths in Kamloops in January made it the third most affected municipality in B.C. behind only Vancouver and Surrey. In the Northern Health region, 19 people died last month, equating to a death rate of 74.5 per 100,000 residents, by far the highest rate of any health authority region.

B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe says ensuring access to safe supply is a critical step in resolving the toxic drug crisis. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Post-mortem toxicology results also showed the volatility and toxicity of the drug supply has increased. 

Between November 2021 and January 2022, approximately 23 per cent of tests showed extreme levels of fentanyl, compared to 13 per cent of results between April 2020 and October 2021.

Both Northern Health, at 29 per cent, and Vancouver Coastal Health, at 27 per cent, recorded a proportion of cases of extreme toxicity that exceeded the average for the province.

Seeking safe supply

B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe reiterated the need for a safer drug supply in an issued statement, as many advocates, academics and health experts have been doing since the crisis began.

"We know that illicit substances in our province are toxic and that those dependent on them are vulnerable to serious harms and death," Lapointe said.

"Ensuring access to safer supply, establishing a substance use system of care, and turning the focus away from punishing and stigmatizing are critical steps to resolving this public health emergency.

The coroners' service says no deaths were reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites and there is no indication that prescribed safe supply contributes to overdose deaths.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said in a statement Friday that the province knows the toxic drug crisis must be tackled "from all angles."

"We are swimming against a rising tide of need but we need to keep going and keep working together. There's much more to do, and we won't stop working until we turn this crisis around," read the minister's statement, in part.

Speaking on the issue in early February, Malcolmson said the province has made "historic" investments and systemic changes to help, including authorizing nurses to prescribe safe alternatives to toxic street drugs and financing hundreds of treatment beds.

SOS call from coroner

On Thursday, the B.C. Coroners Service released a report calling on the province to develop a policy to distribute a safer supply of drugs and offer better health supports with a plan that would see action taken within the next 90 days.

The report, entitled B.C. Coroners Service Death Review Panel: A Review of Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths, reviewed 6,007 deaths from illicit drug toxicity between Aug. 1, 2017, and July 31, 2021. 

In that report, the Coroners Service set a deadline for May 9 for the government to create a safer supply policy in collaboration with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

It also recommended better monitoring of how and why deaths are occurring and plans to address them.

Advocates hopeful but need to see change

Jessica Lamb, who works with a drug user advocacy group called Ankors in the Kootenays, said the recommendations, and proposed dates, give her some hope.

"If these were implemented in our communities, I do believe that the death toll would would change or go down," said Lamb on CBC's Daybreak South.

Lamb said one of the roadblocks in the communities where she works, such as Cranbrook and Nelson, is that there are very few health professionals available who can prescribe safe supply to users.

She also said current public health policies mean only people diagnosed with a substance use disorder are eligible for a prescription and not recreational users, who are just as at risk.

The B.C. Coroner's Service makes recommendations to address deaths related to toxic drugs. An advocate from the East Kootenay responds to the report.

Troy Romanow, a peer worker and program lead with the Northern Sun Helpers Society, said safe supply would make a big difference if implemented.

"That for sure would help the problem beyond all measure," he said.

He said a permanent overdose prevention site would also make a huge difference, especially if it's run by peers and people with lived experience.

"We have the experience of life to bring to this table, more peers at decision-making tables, more peers around helping to improve the lives of other peers, that's what you got to do."

With files from Chad Pawson and Bill Fee

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