2022 was second deadliest year for toxic drug deaths ever

2,272 people died in 2022, including a record number of under-19s

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      In 2022, 2,272 people died from poisoned unregulated drugs in BC, according to the monthly coroners service report. It’s the second deadliest year ever recorded for drug toxicity deaths, 34 short of 2021’s total of 2,306 deaths. 

      The report comes out on the day that BC has decriminalized small amounts of some illicit drugs, which the government described as an “action to save lives [and] build new connections of care.” 

      Toxic drugs remain the leading cause of premature death in BC, second only to cancers in terms of years of life lost. 

      “Our province continues to lose an average of six lives every day, and many more people experience serious health consequences as a result of the unpredictable, unregulated drug supply,” chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a press release. 

      The rate of toxic drug deaths decreased just slightly from 2021, from 44.2 per 100,000 to 42.7 in 2022.

      In December, there were 210 suspected drug poisoning deaths—up from 182 in November. December was the second deadliest month of 2022, behind only January’s death toll of 213. 

      More people under 19 died from poisoned illicit drugs in 2022 than in any other year: 34 suspected deaths in 2022, up from 31 in 2021 and 18 in 2020.

      July 2021 was the first month where more than 200 people were recorded to have died from poisoned drugs. Eight of the last 18 months have seen death tolls above 200 people per month. 

      ”The reality is that these deaths are preventable,” Lapointe said. “Toxicology data confirms that the drug supply in British Columbia is increasingly volatile and life-threatening.”

      A November 2022 report from the provincial select standing committee on health recommended a wide range of measures, including funding more prescribed safe supply and “consider[ing] whether alternative models should be trialed or implemented in order to scale up the response.”

      A BC Coroners Service expert panel in March 2022 also called for “a safer drug supply to those at risk of dying from the toxic illicit drug supply.” 

      The toxicity of the illicit drug supply means that anyone who uses street-bought drugs, whether recreationally, occasionally, regularly or habitually, can be at risk of death due to the ever-changing potency and mixture of substances. 

      One of the current problems is benzodiazepine analogues, such as etizolam, appearing in substances sold as depressants (often known as “down”). Benzos are dangerous: they are a different kind of depressant as compared to opioids. Consuming both benzos and opioids makes it more difficult for naloxone to reverse overdoses. As of December 2022, etizolam was found in 19 per cent of illicit drug samples. 

      In a press conference, the minister for mental health and addictions, Jennifer Whiteside, repeatedly refused to answer questions over whether the province is scaling up prescribed safe supply or expanding programs to disrupt the toxic illicit supply. 

      She emphasized the importance of naloxone training and removing stigma, so people do not use drugs alone. Using drugs with another person, who has naloxone training, means potential overdoses can be spotted and combatted. 

      The vast majority of deaths across the province occur in private residences (55 per cent) or other indoor residences such as supportive housing, SROs, shelters and hotels (29 per cent). Whiteside stated that around half of deaths happen to people who are using alone. Comparatively few (15 per cent) occurred outside, in vehicles, streets, parks or sidewalks. 

      Although province-wide deaths were slightly down this year, deaths in Vancouver, Greater Victoria, Kamloops, Abbotsford, Prince George and Nanaimo all hit record highs. In Vancouver, 562 people died from poisoned unregulated drugs this year, up from 542 in 2021 and 421 in 2020. 

      The highest rates of death per 100,000 people are in the Northern health authority (59.5) and Vancouver Coastal (50.5).

      As of January 31, 2023, it has been 2,483 days since the province declared toxic drug deaths an emergency