More than five years after the then provincial health officer declared a public health emergency, B.C.'s overdose crisis shows no signs of slowing down.
The B.C. Coroners Service reported today that another 158 people died in B.C. of suspected illicit overdose deaths in March. That tied the all-time high for this month, which was set in March 2018 and was 41 percent higher than the same month a year ago.
The 498 illicit-drug overdose deaths in the first three months of 2021 vastly exceed the previous high for this quarter—the 401 deaths recorded in 2017.
Nearly seven in 10 who died in March were between the ages of 30 and 59, with the highest numbers occurring in Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria. Of those who died, 80 percent were male.
It's prompted outrage from those in the harm-reduction movement.
The emergency declaration was triggered in 2016 after 219 suspected illicit-drug overdoses over three months.
In a statement today, the minister of mental health and addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, said that her government stands with everyone mourning the death of a loved one.
"Our province is grateful for front-line workers, caregivers, families and peers responding to overdoses and caring for loved ones during two public health emergencies," Malcolmson said.
“Stigma and criminalization are driving people to use alone, and the pandemic is pushing people further into isolation," she continued. "The illicit drug supply has become dramatically more toxic and, tragically, more lethal. The effects of two public health emergencies have taken an immense toll. People and communities are hurting, and we will do more to stop this terrible surge of overdose deaths."
Malcolmson added that the recent provincial budget included a $500-million investment in mental health and well-being.
According to a B.C. government background paper accompanying the news release, the number of people on opioid agonist treatment has reached 23,500. The number of clinicians prescribing this treatment has also gone up—from 773 in June 2017 to 1,622 in November 2022.
Harm-reduction advocate Guy Felicella declared over Twitter that a "safer regulated supply is the most urgently needed response to the illicit drug supply". You can read his Twitter thread below.