Almost 600 people have died from unregulated drug poisonings in first three months of 2023

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      It’s been seven years since the unregulated toxic drug crisis was declared a public emergency, and an average of 6.6 people died every single day between January and March 2023 from poisoned drugs. 

      According to a new BC Coroners Report, the first three months of the year saw 596 people die from unregulated substances: 222 in January, 177 in February, and 197 in March. According to British Columbia Emergency Health Services, the province averaged 119.9 overdoses per day in March, and paramedics responded to a record 205 poisoning calls on March 22. The previous one-day provincial record was 203 on January 19, 2022.

      “It is clear that an urgent response to this crisis is required and overdue,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, in a press release

      The total number of estimated unregulated drug fatalities for 2022 has also increased, from a previous estimate of 2,272 deaths to 2,314. That makes 2022 the single deadliest year on record for illicit drug fatalities in BC, with a small increase from 2,306 deaths in 2021. 

      So far in 2023, Vancouver Coastal Health region has seen the most fatalities (190) and has the second-highest rate of deaths per 100,000 people (59.4). The City of Vancouver, though, has a death rate of 92.6 per 100,000 people, and has seen 170 deaths so far in 2023. That’s more deaths than in the whole of 2015—138—the year before the provincial health emergency was declared. It’s also 29 per cent of the provincial total, for a city that has about 13 per cent of the province’s population.

      Just over 70 per cent of those who died this year were between the ages of 30 and 59, and 77 per cent were men.

      The make-up of the illicit market continues to change rapidly. Expedited toxicology reports show that benzodiazepine levels have dropped way off, from 19.4 per cent in November to six per cent in March. Stimulant involvement ticked up dramatically last month, from 70.3 per cent in February to 83.8 per cent in March

      In a statement, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said, “Our government is urgently working to expand supports and programs to deliver the integrated mental-health and addiction services that British Columbians need.”

      She did not mention safe or safer supply—providing pure, untainted substances to people who use drugs—despite the fact that academics, activists, and advocates widely agree that it is the best way to reduce the number of people dying from accessing drugs on the volatile, illicit market. A joint statement from Whiteside, Premier David Eby and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry last week also did not mention safe supply.

      According to a factsheet from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, approximately 4,803 people were on prescribed safe supply opioid medications in February. Research suggests at least 83,000 people in the province meet the criteria for opioid dependence, while many more are casual users, meaning the current medicated supply model only provides help to a very small number of people who use drugs.

      Lapointe has been pushing for expanded safer supply for several years. Two Coroners Service Death Review Panels (in 2018 and 2022), as well as the province’s Select Standing Committee on Health, have urged the urgent expansion of safe, regulated supply. 

      “There should not be a dichotomy between access to life-saving safer supply and access to life-saving treatment options,” Lapointe said. “Tens of thousands of British Columbians remain at risk of dying from toxic drugs and we continue to experience the tragedy of six people dying every single day, as we have for the past two years.”

      It has been 2,560 days since the unregulated drug death emergency was declared. To date, more than 11,000 British Columbians have died.