Over 2,300 people died in B.C. in 2021 due to illicit-drug overdoses, coroner reports
26% increase in fatalities over 2020; about 7 deaths per day recorded in November and December
UPDATE — Jan. 31, 2022: The B.C. Coroners Service has updated its statistics for drug toxicity deaths in 2021. A statement said 2,306 people died over the course of the year, up from the preliminary tally of 2,224.
It remains the deadliest year on record.
"I am so sorry for your loss."
The voice of British Columbia's Chief Coroner Lisa LaPointe was filled with emotion Wednesday morning as she expressed her condolences to the loved ones of the 2,224 people who died due to suspected illicit-drug overdoses in the province last year.
It is the deadliest year ever recorded, representing a 26 per cent increase over 2020's death toll of 1,765.
The latest numbers, released today by the B.C. Coroners Service, show that last year, about six people were dying daily — and those numbers spiked in the last two months of the year.
In November and December, there were 210 and 215 suspected illicit-drug toxicity deaths, respectively, according to the coroner — two of the largest monthly numbers ever recorded, and equal to about seven deaths per day.
"The suffering that is happening in our province is sometimes unbearable," said LaPointe, who called on policy makers to do more.
Advocates, academics, health experts and LaPointe herself have called for a safe supply of drugs to reduce deaths. LaPointe warned drug users Wednesday the supply on the streets has never before been this toxic.
Fentanyl was detected in 83 per cent of deaths in 2021. Carfentanil, a stronger analogue of fentanyl, was found in 187 deaths.
LaPointe also flagged the increasing presence of benzodiazepines, which are typically prescribed as a sedative. They are particularly dangerous when paired with an opioid like fentanyl because the sedation increases the risk of an overdose, according to Health Canada.
B.C. has applied to the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use, in an effort to reduce and prevent future drug poisoning deaths.
LaPointe called for the federal government to grant that exemption now. She also called for greater access to treatment and recovery.
"People are dying on waiting lists," she said.
In 2021, 71 per cent of those dying were aged 30 to 59, and the vast majority were male.
Nel Wieman, deputy chief medical officer with the First Nations Health Authority, said Indigenous people are suffering disproportionately in the overdose crisis.
According to Weiman, Indigenous people are dying from illicit drug overdoses at five times the rate of non-Indigenous people in British Columbia.
'Where is the apology?'
Perry Kendall, B.C.'s former provincial health officer, declared a public health emergency on April 14, 2016, due to a rising number of drug deaths.
Before the declaration, Kendall said, British Columbians outside of Vancouver didn't have much access to supervised consumption sites and other services to manage addictions.
Still, Kendall said, the province has a long way to go when it comes to fighting its overdose crisis. Tackling the supply chain is an essential element, he says.
Guy Felicella, a peer clinical advisor with Vancouver Coastal Health, says decades of failed policy at all levels of government is largely to blame for the death toll.
"Where is the apology?" he asked aloud at Wednesday's press conference. "Their failure is represented by more than 2,200 deaths last year."
Provincial officials respond
In response to the coroner's report, the B.C. government released a joint statement from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson.
"We know one of the most important ways to keep people alive in this crisis is to ensure a safer supply to replace toxic illicit drugs and the expansion of this life-saving program is now underway across our province," said the statement.
Malcolmson spoke publicly Wednesday afternoon, saying the latest report represents an unspeakable, and unacceptable loss.
She 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.
Malcolmson also noted the increase in safe consumption sites under the current NDP government, growing from one in 2016 to 39 now — 13 of which also have safe inhalation sites.
The minister also acknowledged it hasn't been enough.
"We are swimming against a rising tide of need," said Malcolmson.
Like LaPointe, she also spoke directly to drug users, reminding them not to use alone. The Lifeguard App, she said, is one tool people can use to keep themselves safer.
The free app serves as a digital check-in, requiring drug users to respond at certain time intervals in order to show they are OK. If 75 seconds pass with no user response, the app uses a text-to-voice call to alert 911 dispatchers to a potential overdose.
"Using alone often means dying alone," warned Malcolmson.
B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said the B.C. NDP government is not doing enough.
"We urgently need low-barrier safe supply that does not require a diagnosis, daily lineups, or finding a sympathetic doctor," she said in a statement.
B.C. politicians returned to the legislature yesterday. In her statement, Furstenau called for the urgent convening of an all-party committee to create immediate, stabilizing solutions to the toxic drug crisis.
With files from Anna Desmarais and Justin McElroy