The province’s first initial count of overdose deaths in 2019 shows a sharp decline from previous years but a number that remains miles above what was once considered “normal” for British Columbia.
There were 981 illicit-drug-overdose deaths in B.C. last year, according to a B.C. Coroners Service (BCCS) report released today (February 24).
That’s down roughly a third from 1,543 deaths in 2018 and 1,495 the year before that.
B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe noted that the total for 2019 is almost the exact number of deaths B.C. saw in 2016, the year the province officially declared the overdose crisis a public-health emergency.
"More than 5,000 lives have been lost in B.C. since 2016 as a result of illicit drug toxicity,” she said quoted in a media release. “The number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019 remains higher than motor vehicle incidents, suicides and homicides combined, and B.C. continues to bear the heaviest toll of the impacts of the unpredictable, profit-driven, illicit drug market.”
From 2001 to 2010, the annual average of fatal overdoses in B.C. was 204 deaths per year, and so 981 deaths recorded in 2019 is good news when compared to recent years but a shocking failure when you look back just a little further.
The coroners service’s media release credits the decline in deaths to harm-reduction programs that the province and partners have deployed since 2016.
"The effectiveness of the overdose response must be acknowledged, and our gratitude for the tireless work of those who are responding to overdoses when they occur cannot be overstated," Dr. Perry Kendall, co-interim executive director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said quoted there. "We must also acknowledge that overdoses are still occurring at an equal or greater rate than ever as a result of the toxic drug supply, posing a significant public health threat that will impact a generation of British Columbians.
“An overdose can lead to long-term harms, such as traumatic brain injury that will last a lifetime,” he continued. “Lives are being saved, but saving lives alone is not nearly enough. We must now turn our attention toward implementing strategies to prevent overdoses from occurring in the first place."
In the release, Kendall and Lapointe argued that the way to prevent overdoses is to provide people addicted to opioids with a regulated supply of drugs.
The plans they and other B.C. health officials support involve using the health-care system to distribute prescription opioids such as hydromorphone and morphine—drugs of known consistencies and potencies—as a relatively safe alternative to unknown substances purchased on the street.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has piloted such programs for several years now and researchers have published academic articles detailing their success. When people are provided with a regulated supply of prescription opioids, the data shows, they ingest fewer illegal drugs, commit fewer crimes, engage far less with the sex trade, and often gain enough stability to find housing and reconnect with family.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said B.C. must continue to increase access to pharmaceutical opioids in order to reduce overdose deaths.
“The measures we are taking to ensure access to services are there for people who use drugs when they are ready and able to start their path to recovery,” she said quoted in the release. “And in the meantime, we need to change our approach so that people who use drugs are able to seek help without the fear of being charged criminally and with access to a pharmaceutical alternative, instead of what is clearly a toxic street-drug supply."