The first five months of 2021 have seen 851 people die of toxic drugs in British Columbia, 160 of those deaths in May alone, according to new figures released today.
That’s an average of just over 170 deaths per month, far surpassing the 144 monthly average in 2020, the province’s most deadly year recorded.
About five people per day are dying of toxic drugs, and critics say the provincial government has failed to provide an emergency response that could save hundreds of lives.
"We need to ensure that safe alternatives to toxic illicit drugs are available throughout the province, and that we are taking meaningful steps to reduce stigma and offer substance users access to the supports they need and are seeking,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe in a news release.
The toxic drug supply has become increasingly potent, unpredictable and deadly, particularly since pandemic border closures limited imported supply.
The potent opioid carfentanil, responsible for 60 deaths in 2020, has already contributed to at least 75 deaths in 2021. Fentanyl, increasingly found in a wide range of substances, is a factor in about 85 per cent of the deaths in 2021 so far, compared to five per cent in 2012.
Benzodiazepines, a class of depressants, are also increasingly present in opioids, creating a dangerous combination that can increase a person’s risk of dying by stopping their breathing.
Advocates say the B.C. government has been too slow to respond, especially in making safe alternatives to poisoned drugs widely and readily available for substance users.
“This is not going to change by magic. We are in a new context of synthetic drugs, one that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” community activist and drug policy advisor Karen Ward wrote in The Tyee in June.
“People do not know what they’re putting in their body because it is a prohibited, criminalized substance. This is a problem regulation will solve.”
But the growing number of deaths continue more than nine months after the province announced it would expand safe supply options in B.C. Few details of the program have been released, and there is no timeline yet for more information.
Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Sheila Malcolmson released a statement today.
“Our government will continue expanding life-saving resources across the continuum of care, from prescribed safer supply to more treatment beds,” it said. “Going forward, we are deepening our investment in people and innovative solutions to turn this crisis around.”
Malcolmson’s statement warned of the risk of toxic drugs as pandemic restrictions are eased this summer.
“Many are eager to socialize as COVID-19 restrictions lift, and people must be aware illicit drugs are more toxic and unpredictable than ever before,” she said. “The drugs you might use today are not the same as they were one or two years ago.”
It’s been more than five years since the overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency. The province announced it would follow in Vancouver’s footsteps and seek federal permission to decriminalize personal possession of some substances.
But the “Vancouver model” for decriminalization, submitted to Ottawa for consideration earlier this month, has been criticized by a number of drug user advocacy networks as too restrictive and not in touch with the reality of the city’s drug supply.
Low thresholds for possession could mean the production of even more potent and deadly substances that will increase toxic drug deaths, they warn.
“This is an entirely different era, this is not heroin, this is not ‘rock, powder, down’ anymore,” Ward told The Tyee earlier this year.