Fatal overdoses decline in first quarter of 2019 but remain miles above what B.C. once considered normal

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      For the first time in years, there’s a glimmer of hope in B.C.’s latest bi-monthly report on drug-overdose deaths. But only a glimmer.

      There were 73 fatal overdose across the province in February 2019, according to the B.C. Coroner’s Service.

      The last time that the number of overdoses in B.C. fell below 80 per month was October 2016.

      But the dip in February 2019 was just that: a dip. The following month there were 104 fatal overdoses.

      And even the relatively low instance of 73 deaths in February is a number that not long ago B.C. would have considered astronomical.

      Just five years ago, in 2014, the average number of fatal overdoses each month was 30.6. Ten years ago, in 2009, the monthly average was just 16.8.

      And so the decline observed in February 2019, while relatively good news, also underscores the extent to which B.C. very much remains in one of the worst public-health emergencies the province has ever experienced.

      The cause is fentanyl, a dangerous-synthetic opioid that has all but replaced heroin in illicit drug markets. According to the coroner’s report, fentanyl was associated with 85 percent of illicit-drug overdose deaths during the first three months of 2019. That’s up from 25 percent five years earlier.

      Fentanyl is significantly cheaper than heroin to produce. It’s also much more potent, which means it is easier to smuggle over international borders. In addition, the production of heroin begins with a poppy field—a labor-intensive agricultural operation that requires substantial amounts of land. Meanwhile, fentanyl is cooked in laboratories that criminals can hide just about anywhere. It all means that there is no reason to believe that heroin will ever return to North America’s illicit-drug markets.

      What’s more, an even deadlier drug called carfentanil is turning up in B.C. overdoses with increasing frequency.

      A second B.C. Coroners Service report that was released the same day (May 15) as the latest batch of statistics states that carfentanil was detected in 64 of 268 fatal overdoses (24 percent) recorded during the first three months of 2019.

      “This is almost twice as many overdose deaths where carfentanil was detected compared to all of 2018,” the report adds.

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      An accompanying media release emphasizes that most people who have died of an overdose in 2019 were using drugs alone.

      “Nine in every 10 illicit drug deaths occurred inside, including more than half in private residences,” it reads.

      “There were no deaths at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.”