British Columbia

June was the worst month for overdose deaths in B.C. history

For the second consecutive month, a record number of deaths due to illicit drugs has been reported in B.C.

There were 175 deaths due to illicit drugs in the province last month, up from previous high of 171 in May

B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, seen at a news conference in June, says fentanyl continues to be the most significant driver of B.C.'s overdose crisis, but there are other major factors. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

For the second consecutive month, a record number of illicit drug toxicity deaths have been reported in B.C.

B.C. Coroners Service Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said 175 people died in June, which is up from 171 deaths in May.

Prior to May, the worst month on record was December, 2016, when 161 lives were lost.

"We know the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people who use drugs, as it has all British Columbians," she said.

"Access to key harm reduction services has been a challenge and our social networks are smaller."

The alarming spike in deaths during the pandemic has advocates for drug users once again calling on all levels of government to immediately provide a permanent, safe supply of drugs.

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy says prior to the pandemic, there was a 36 per cent decrease year-over-year in overdose deaths.

"There was so much more to do to save more lives, but our plan and our collective efforts were making a difference," she said.

"Now because of COVID-19, the drug supply has become more toxic than ever before — with tragic consequences.

Safe supply

BC Coroners Service spokesperson Andy Watson said post-mortem testing began to show increasing levels of extreme fentanyl — the label given to tests that detect more than 50 micrograms per litre of fentanyl — in March.

Watson said extreme fentanyl levels were detected more frequently in autopsies in May and June, which emphasizes the need for permanent safe supply of drugs for users in B.C.

"What that leads us to believe is that, obviously with a more toxic drug supply, even if people have a higher resistance, it's creating challenges for people using drugs and there are lethal consequences," he said.

"We do see a correlation between the COVID-19 time period and the illicit drug crisis."

A handful of safe drug supply pilot projects in B.C. provide users with tablets of hydromorphone, which is a prescription pain medication.

Lapointe says there is "no evidence of a link between increased prescriptions and the increase in deaths."

Guy Felicella, a peer clinical adviser with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre and B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said safe supply programs need to be expanded immediately.

"I'm tired of seeing people die while waiting for access to a safer supply or access to detox or to get into recovery," he said. "The waiting is killing people."

 

Carla Qualtrough, Liberal MP for Delta, said the federal government is working on cutting bureaucratic red tape to make it easier for people to access safe supply.

"We have dug in but we need to do more," said Qualtrough on Friday on CBC's The Early Edition.

"We need easier access to medication, and we need [it] easier for overdose prevention sites to be established, we need to get money to community organizations ... and that's what we are trying to do," she added.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, as well as B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, are also calling on the federal government to decriminalize possession of illicit drugs for personal use.

"We have been focused on prevention … and I know we are open to absolutely having those conversations," said Qualtrough with regards to decriminalization.

COVID-19 and overdoses

The June total for illicit drug overdose deaths at 175 nearly eclipses the death toll from COVID-19, for all of 2020, which so far stands at 176.

Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users founder Ann Livingston says the overdose crisis has been far more deadly than the coronavirus in B.C., so the province should provide similar resources to address it and give frequent updates like it does for COVID-19.

"When you give a report about one, it only seems fair that you give a report about the other," she said.

"It really juxtaposes how they treat COVID-19 and how they treat overdoses."

Premier John Horgan said the overdose crisis and the coronavirus are both public health emergencies, but each has its own unique set of challenges.

"We have an insidious virus that affects anyone at any time and we have an opioid crisis that involves people using drugs," he said.

"Those are choices initially and then they become dependencies. I appreciate that the numbers align today but I think we're talking about two separate things here."

The B.C. government needs to quickly develop a comprehensive plan to address overdoses, said Jane Thornthwaite, the Liberal critics for mental health and addictions.

The province has recorded more than 100 overdose deaths in each of the past four months.

There has been a total of 728 illicit drug deaths in B.C. to date in 2020, and the number of deaths in each health authority is at or near the highest monthly totals ever recorded. 

With files from The Early Edition

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