The British Columbia government can do a lot more to reduce the number of illicit drug overdose deaths in the province, a special panel report released Thursday found.
Convened by the B.C. Coroners Service, the panel included 21 experts from health care, policing, corrections, Indigenous health and other areas. “The issue of drug use in society is complex and long-term solutions to the current level of overdoses deaths will not be simple,” their report said.
But after looking at 1,854 illicit drug overdose deaths that occurred between the start of 2016 and the end of July in 2017, the panel identified three broad areas where the province could make a difference in the short term.
“There are no provincial regulations for evidence-based standards for addiction treatment,” the report said, calling on the province to regulate and oversee treatment and recovery programs.
It also argued for expanding access to opioid agonist therapies, such as taking methadone or buprenorphine to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioids, and injectable opioid agonist therapies, and for making drug checking services more widely available.
The report found that 81 per cent of the deaths were among males, that most died in a private residence, that the highest mortality rate was among people between the ages of 30 and 59, and that Indigenous people were over-represented.
Many who died had had recent involvement with health care providers or the corrections system. In 83 per cent of overdose deaths in 2017, fentanyl was detected either on its own or along with other drugs.
While the report looked at patterns in the deaths, panel chair Michael Egilson stressed, “These 1,854 individuals were family and friends, they were community members, and the loss of their lives will be deeply felt.”
In the period the panel looked at, there were more deaths from illicit drug overdoses than from motor vehicle incidents, suicides and homicides combined, he said.
Asked about the connection between people leaving jail and overdosing, Egilson said there are various explanations, including that a person’s tolerance could be lower after they’ve received treatment. The social determinants of health also suggest that the people who are more likely to be in correctional services are generally more vulnerable to begin with, he said.
The report comes as numbers from the Coroners Service for February 2018 showed a decline in the number of suspected overdose deaths. There were 102 such deaths that month, compared with 126 the month before and 122 last February.
“While it’s a relief that we’re not continuing to see the significant increases that we saw through much of last year in terms of accidental overdose deaths, we are still seeing a tragic number of deaths every month,” Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said.
Asked what’s contributed to the reduction, Lapointe mentioned the opening of more safe consumption sites and the expanded availability of naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioid overdoses. “That’s got to be making a difference.”
While the trend has been downwards for the number of deaths in the past few months, the Coroners Service never knows what to expect month to month, she said.