British Columbia

More than 1,420 people died of illicit-drug overdoses in B.C. in 2017, the 'most tragic year ever': coroner

The B.C. Coroners Service released 2017's total number of overdose deaths as the opioid crisis continues.

Fentanyl caused more than 80% of suspected deaths last year

The B.C. Coroners Service releases the number of suspected illicit overdose deaths in 2017 on Wednesday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The B.C. Coroners Service says more than 1,400 people died of an illicit drug overdose in the province in 2017, making it "the most tragic year ever," according to the chief coroner.

Lisa Lapointe said the preliminary total for the year is at 1,422 — an increase of 43 per cent from 2016 — but that figure will grow as test results continue to come in.

Approximately 81 per cent of suspected deaths last year involved the opioid fentanyl. Lapointe said it was often combined with other illicit drugs — most often heroin, cocaine or methamphetamines.

"If not for fentanyl, we wouldn't be seeing the deaths we're seeing," she said Wednesday.

A man walks past a graffiti mural of a preacher with facts about the toxic drug crisis written beside his image.
A man walks past a mural by street artist Smokey D. about the fentanyl and opioid overdose crisis in Vancouver. Most of the overdose deaths in the province happened in that city. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Nearly 90 per cent of people who died were alone inside a home when they suffered an overdose. Four out of five were men, and more than half of all victims were between the ages of 30 and 49.

Vancouver saw the highest number of deadly overdoses last year, followed by Surrey and Victoria.

The coroners service said nobody died at any supervised consumption site or at any of the drug overdose prevention sites.

Naloxone temporarily blocks the effects of an opioid overdose to save lives. (Sam Colbert/CBC)

The number of deaths in 2017 had surpassed the 2016 record of 993 by October.

The provincial health crisis, first declared in 2016, has continued into the new year: nine deaths were reported over five days in the B.C. Interior last week.

Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall, speaking on his last day before retirement, said the numbers show the province is still in the middle of an "epidemic of poisoning deaths."​

Indigenous people in B.C. were also disproportionately affected by the crisis in 2017 — Dr. Patricia Daly said they accounted for 10 per cent of all illicit overdose deaths in B.C. last year, even though they only represent 3.4 per cent of the provincial population.

'Cautiously optimistic'

However, Daly said there is a glimmer of hope in the numbers.

She said statistics show a "significant decrease" in deaths over the last four months of 2017: an average of 96 deaths per month from September to December, compared with the first eight months of the year when there were more than 129 deaths per month.

Daly said she's "cautiously optimistic" about the 25 per cent drop.

"Things are moving in a better direction ... but I'd say it's too early to say it's an ongoing downward trend," she said.

Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner with the BC Coroners Service, said Wednesday said the province "we wouldn’t be seeing the deaths we’re seeing ... if not for fentanyl." (CBC)

Sarah Blyth is with the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver and has helped stop many overdose deaths in the city's Downtown Eastside by setting up unsanctioned, pop-up supervised injection sites.

She says the crisis is affecting the province's "most vulnerable" people.

"It's not surprising that we're still in the middle of a crisis and that people are still dying," said Blyth. "More action has to be taken — immediate action — with expanding safe access drug programs so that people are not taking a lethal dose of something that's going to kill them."

She also said the stigma associated with drug addiction — something Kendall called a "chronic, relapsing health condition" — can be deadly.

"[Users] don't want anyone to know [they're using] ... They use home alone in shame and that's when they die."