British Columbia

195 British Columbians die from toxic drugs in May, setting a new record for the month

At least 195 people died due to an illicit drug overdose in B.C. in May — the highest death toll ever recorded in May, according to the latest statistics released Thursday by the B.C. Coroners Service.

B.C. on track to match last year's record-setting death toll

A protester holds up a sign that reads 'Every Death is a Drug Policy Failure'.
Protesters at Victoria's Centennial Square on April 14, 2022. More than 900 people lost their lives due to B.C.'s toxic drug supply through the first five months of 2022. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

At least 195 people died due to an illicit drug overdose in B.C. in May — the highest death toll ever recorded in that calendar month, according to the latest statistics released Thursday by the B.C. Coroners Service.

In the five-month period from January to May, 940 people lost their lives from drug overdoses, an average of more than six people a day.

It puts B.C. on track to match last year's record-setting death toll of 2,265 lives lost to toxic drugs.

Fentanyl was detected in most of the deaths in May, and around a third involved benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that are naloxone-resistant.

 

"After a catastrophic 2021, I am saddened to report that we are, once again, on pace to lose a record number of our community members in 2022," said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner, in a statement. "Every life lost to illicit drugs in our province is a preventable tragedy."

The province has said it is working to prevent the deaths by building addiction treatment facilities and expanding access to a safe supply of drugs. It also pointed to a federal exemption that will decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs starting next year.

Drug user groups, however, say that decriminalization will do little to halt the continuing deaths, and a focus on addictions is not urgent enough to deal with the crisis. They are asking for a rapid expansion of safe supply and life-saving measures like overdose prevention sites.

On Friday, Lapointe said much of the current attitude toward the crisis has to do with decades of stigma.

"Public messaging did a very good job of trying to convince everybody that that these people didn't matter," she told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition. "I think we're pushing back now to say, no, no, no. People who use drugs are the same kind of people who drink a glass of wine or smoke cigarettes.

"They're just regular people. [We're] trying to make sure that regular people aren't dying because of a choice that they make — just like the rest of us make choices every day."

 

The coroner has said that people dying from overdoses aren't all addicts and that "hardly anybody" is currently able to access a safe supply of drugs.

A March report from the coroners service asked for a provincial framework to provide a safe supply of drugs and targets and time frames to establish a "substance-use system of care."

Lapointe says the government has not yet responded to those recommendations.

"The challenge was that there were no timelines, that there were no targets or specific goals," she said on Friday. "There is some limited access to safe supply in the southern part of our province, the large urban centres, but even then, [it's] very challenging for people.

"It's really making people fall off these programs because [the government] makes it so difficult for them."

Since a public health emergency about the drug poisoning crisis was declared in 2016, more than 10,000 people in B.C. have died of an overdose.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe calls last year "catastrophic." Now she's warning a record number of people are losing their lives to toxic drugs again this year. Incredibly — it has become a monthly update we give.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Akshay Kulkarni

Journalist

Akshay Kulkarni is a journalist who has worked at CBC British Columbia since 2021. Based in Vancouver, he has covered breaking news, and written features about the pandemic and toxic drug crisis. He is most interested in data-driven stories. You can email him at akshay.kulkarni@cbc.ca.

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