The first six months of 2021 have been the deadliest on record for toxic drugs in British Columbia, claiming the lives of 1,011 people, a third more than the same time last year.
The BC Coroners Service reported today that 159 people died in June, the second-highest total for the month in history. In June 2020 185 people died.
The report, a grim confirmation that 2021 will be the deadliest year ever without bold action, came as loved ones of the 21,000 Canadians lost to toxic drugs since 2016 marked International Overdose Awareness Day.
“Each one of these deaths was preventable,” Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said today. “We continue to seek compassionate, courageous and meaningful solutions to stop the death toll.”
B.C. is in its sixth year of the overdose public health emergency, but the province still isn’t treating it like a crisis, Lapointe said.
“The public health emergency was declared in 2016 with the best of intentions... with expectation that response would be commensurate with the impact,” she responded to a Tyee question. “We haven’t seen that.”
The lack of co-ordinated emergency response is mind-boggling to Leslie McBain, who lost her son Jordan to a fentanyl overdose and co-founded Moms Stop the Harm.
“We are doing essentially nothing and expecting things to improve,” she said today. “Why would we allow this dismal and tragic situation to exist?”
Meanwhile, the criminalized drug supply has grown increasingly unpredictable and poisoned.
Fentanyl contributed to 87 per cent of deaths between 2018 and 2020. Carfentanil, an even more powerful synthetic opioid, has contributed to 96 deaths so far this year, compared to 65 in all of 2020.
Paramedics are responding to more than 100 overdoses a day across the province, said Brian Twaites, an advanced life support paramedic for BC Emergency Health Services.
And more and more often they are needing to use up to five times the normal dose of naloxone to reverse an overdose from synthetic opioids, which bind more strongly to receptors in the brain.
Lapointe said widespread and accessible safe supply needs to be available to offer an alternative to the poisoned illicit supply, in addition to decriminalization of drug possession.
“Prescribed drugs, including those prescribed by doctors as safe supply, are not a factor in the drug toxicity crisis. Safe supply is not creating a health-and-safety risk,” she said.
Vancouver is currently waiting for federal approval for its decriminalization application.
The provincial government has said it will also seek approval to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use.
The NDP promised an expanded safe supply program before last fall’s provincial election.
But critics say current government prescribing guidance for safe supply doesn’t go far enough, and won’t stop 2021 and 2022 from becoming consecutive record years for fatalities.
Lapointe said without targets for prescribers and access in every community, B.C. is “nowhere near the numbers” we need to stop deaths.
Stigma and doctors’ reluctance to prescribe alternatives to illicit drugs continue to prevent people who use substances from seeking and being provided adequate health care, she noted.
The “biggest barrier is how slow we are to change our perspective on what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Notably absent from today’s announcement were provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix, Premier John Horgan and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson.
None of their offices had released statements to mark International Overdose Awareness Day or acknowledge the new report on deaths when the press conference concluded this morning.
Just before 11 a.m. Malcolmson’s office released a statement expressing sorrow for the more than 7,000 lives lost in B.C. over the last five years.
“Our government has been creating new drug policy in Canada that will save lives by supporting access to prescribed safer supply and connecting people to health-care services, and by moving forward on decriminalization of people who use drugs,” said Malcolmson in the statement. “We will do everything we can to turn this drug poisoning crisis around.”
The province’s all-hands-on-deck pandemic response is “absolutely what we need for the drug toxicity crisis,” Lapointe said.
“What we have seen is small steps primarily left to one ministry.”
Toxic drug deaths are now the leading cause of years of life lost in the province, affecting mostly men ages 19 to 39.
And they are the leading cause of death among young people aged 19 to 39, and come second in the general population, after malignant cancers.
McBain said the people dying in communities across the province are important, loved and loving. “They are us,” she said.
The June data was reported a month late due to the nearly 600 heat-related deaths in late June’s heat wave, which overwhelmed the BC Coroners Service. The delay will be corrected when July and August data are reported together at the end of September.