You can’t call it a victory, but the B.C. Coroners Service’s latest batch of statistics on overdose deaths suggests it might be time for cautious optimism.
Data covering up to the end of May 2019 shows that fatal overdoses have repeatedly fallen below the province’s so-called “new normal” of 100 dead per month.
In January 2019, there were 98 illicit-drug overdose deaths across B.C., then 80 in February, 114 in March, 86 in April, and then 84 in May.
That puts the monthly average for 2019 at 92.4, well below 2017’s monthly average of 124.4 and 2018’s monthly average of 127.9.
So why not declare the overdose crisis over? Because while the numbers are down, they remain miles above where they used to be and light years beyond what should be considered acceptable.
In 2013—the year the dangerous synthetic-opioid fentanyl really began adulterating markets in western Canada—B.C.’s monthly average of overdose deaths was 27.6.
In 2012—just before fentanyl arrived—the average was 22.8 deaths per month.
While a real improvement over the last couple of years, 2019’s average of 92.4 makes clear B.C.’s opioid epidemic is anything but over.
“Carfentanil was detected in almost one-quarter (102 of 383) of the fentanyl-detected deaths in the first five months of 2019,” reads a media release accompanying the report. “There were 35 carfentanil-detected deaths in 2018.”
Last May, Health Canada reported that the country’s life expectancy had stalled for the first time in over four decades. The primary reason was drug overdoses in B.C.
“Increases in life expectancy in four provinces [plus Nunavut] are largely offset by a marked decline in British Columbia,” the report explained. “Life expectancy at birth in British Columbia fell for the second year in a row, decreasing by 0.3 years for men and by 0.1 years for women from 2016 to 2017.”
The report reads as if its author was aware of how unbelievable it might sound for a single cause of death in a single province to drag down an entire country’s average life expectancy.
“By examining changes in deaths by age and cause, in 2017,” it reads, “it was possible to identify the main factor that was responsible for the recent change in life expectancy in Canada, and in particular in British Columbia: accidental drug overdoses among young adult men.”