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Over 5,000 lives lost to overdose crisis in B.C. since 2016

Photo credit: Jeff Anderson via Flickr

In the last four years, more than 5,000 lives have been lost in British Columbia as a result of overdoses caused by illicit drug toxicity.

This number represents more deaths than those caused by motor vehicle incidents, suicides, and homicides combined over the same period. Last year alone, overdoses caused by toxic drugs killed nearly three people in the province per day. In post-mortem testing, fentanyl was detected in four out of five deaths.

That’s according to a Feb. 24 report from the BC Coroners Service, released just weeks before the anniversary of the province’s public health emergency declared by former health minister Dr. Perry Kendall in April 2016 in response to an increasing number of overdose deaths. B.C. was the first province to take such an action.

The report states that at least 981 deaths were suspected to be caused by drug toxicity in 2019, down 36 per cent from 2018. While this change is positive, it is consistent with the number of deaths that occurred for the same reason in 2016, the year the public health emergency was first declared.

While provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry called the drop “encouraging” and indicative of the success of province-wide harm reduction measures, she also said that B.C. continues to see high rates of overdose, as well as an increase in the number of young people suffering from long-lasting health effects after suffering an overdose. She called for a new approach, “so that people who use drugs are able to seek help without the fear of being charged criminally and with access to a pharmaceutical alternative, instead of what is clearly a toxic street-drug supply.”

Both the provincial chief coroner Lisa Lapointe and Kendall, now the co-interim executive director at the BC Centre on Substance Use, also used the report to call for greater access to safe supply for individuals experiencing substance use disorder.

“Lives are being saved, but saving lives alone is not nearly enough,” he said. “We must now turn our attention toward implementing strategies to prevent overdoses from occurring in the first place — which must start with a legally regulated drug supply.”

Pointing out the importance of harm reduction measures and frontline workers, Kendall also said that overdoses continue to pose a significant public health threat that “will impact a generation of British Columbians.”

While the number of deaths has decreased since 2018, the number of overdoses has plateaued. According to Lance Stephenson with the BC Emergency Health Services, more than 65 overdoses are called in each day.

Indigenous people are proportionally overrepresented in the data. Cities that experienced the highest number of overdose deaths in 2019 included Vancouver, Surrey, Victoria, and Abbotsford. Between 2017 and 2019, deaths were highest in local health areas such as Princeton, Grand Forks, Hope, Keremeos, and Merritt.

While prevention sites and other community-based measures have helped to curb the number of deaths caused by overdose, solutions like the ones Henry, Kendall, and Lapointe are calling for are being largely ignored by federal politicians.

Activists in B.C. have called on provincial politicians to pass a resolution to support the decriminalization of drugs and the provision of a "safe supply". While Premier John Horgan has not committed to supporting such an effort, he said in November that the province is looking “at new therapies, new ideas, new suggestions all the time."

This article is available under a Canadian Creative Commons licence.