British Columbia

176 people died due to illicit drugs in B.C. in April: coroner

The BC Coroners Service says at least 176 people in the province died because of the illicit drug supply in April, as the average number of deaths nears six per day.

Province says 680 people have died so far in 2021

Pairs of shoes representing a life lost to a drug overdose hang on the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The BC Coroners Service says at least 176 people in British Columbia died because of the illicit drug supply in April, as the average number of deaths nears six per day.

The number of lives lost was a record for any month of April in the province. It's an increase of 43 per cent over the same month last year, and marks the 14th straight month during which more than 100 people have died due to illicit drugs.

It means at least 680 people have died so far this year.

"These latest numbers emphasize the toxicity of the illicit drug supply in B.C.," said Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe.

The drug supply in B.C. continues to become more and more toxic, according to the service. Fentanyl was detected in 86 per cent of deaths this year. Carfentanil, a stronger analogue of fentanyl, was found in 62 per cent of deaths — nearly as many as were found during all of 2020.

The vast majority of people who have died this year were men and more than a third were over the age of 50. Roughly half of all deaths happened indoors after using alone. No deaths have been reported at overdose prevention sites.

The Northern Health authority region continues to see the highest rates of death, with 50 out of every 100,000 people dying of a suspected overdose.

Allayah Thomas, 12, is believed to be the youngest person to die as a result of illicit drugs. She died at a hospital in Victoria after using drugs at a friend's home on April 14.

Thomas's mother said her daughter had previously suffered an overdose three times before her death, but had been turned away from rehabilitation services because she was under the age of 14.

"We know that substance use disorder is a complex health issue, and those experiencing it need meaningful and compassionate services and supports," said Lapointe. 

"Far too often, we hear from families who have lost a loved one that no help was available despite desperate searches over months or years."

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe speaks on April 14 to mark the five-year anniversary of B.C. declaring a public health emergency. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said the continued loss of life is "hard to fathom."

"The situation is not getting any better," Malcolmson wrote in a statement.

"This is devastating for so many people grieving the loss of their loved ones. There are feelings of fear reverberating in communities throughout the province, particularly among families and those working on the front lines of this crisis."

More than 7,000 people are reported to have died from toxic drugs since B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016. Deaths had begun to slow in 2019, but increased isolation and disruption of illicit drug supply chains due to the COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 the deadliest year on record.

The First Nations Health Authority said last month Indigenous people accounted for nearly 15 per cent of all toxic drug deaths last year, though they represent 3.3 per cent of the province's total population.

With files from The Canadian Press