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At least 1,827 people have died so far this year from poisoned street drugs in BC, says a new report from the Coroners Service.
The monthly report, which tracks deaths from toxic illicit drugs, estimates that 179 people living in B.C. died in October from consuming tainted substances. That’s a small increase over the previous month (when 172 people died) but lower than the same month last year (when 207 people died).
“Despite the efforts of many, this public-health emergency continues to devastate families throughout our province,” said Lisa Lapointe, the province’s chief coroner, in a news release. “The increased toxicity and variability of the illicit drug supply has created an environment where everyone who uses substances is at risk.”
The number of drug toxicity deaths recorded in the first 10 months of 2022 is the second highest of any year to date. Last year remains the deadliest year on record, with 2,267 deaths reported in 2021.
Sheila Malcolmson, provincial minister of mental health and addictions, said in a statement that the province is working on solutions.
“The pain felt by those who have lost their loved ones to this public-health crisis is profound. My heart goes out to the families, friends, and communities that are grieving these losses,” the statement reads. “While we have been adding new treatment and recovery services, expanding overdose prevention and working to end stigma about addiction, the increasing illicit drug toxicity has taken more lives.”
Malcolmson has served as the minister in charge of the drug poisoning crisis since November 2020. She has overseen the three deadliest years for drug poisoning deaths on record. When asked by The Tyee last year whether the increasing death count warranted her resignation, she ended the interview.
While the provincial government has promised to invest $22.6 million over the next three years to support prescribed safe supply programs, critics say action is too slow and piecemeal.
“Nobody was ‘lost to the poisoned drug supply,’ it’s not the fucking BLOB,” said drug policy advisor and activist Karen Ward on Twitter. “[The government’s] refusal to change [its] policy approach murdered 179 people in one month.”
its not a fucken game. nobody was lost. your refusal to change your policy approach murdered 179 people in one month. nobody was "lost to the poisoned drug supply," its not the fuckin BLOB pic.twitter.com/nrJvre0uxm— karen ward • #SolidarityWithStephanieAllen (@kwardvancouver) December 1, 2022
Sonia Furstenau, leader of the BC Greens, said the government has its priorities in the wrong place.
“British Columbia lost 179 more people to the toxic drug crisis in October. Every single one is an avoidable death,” she stated on Twitter. “If Premier Eby truly wants to save lives, he would introduce widely accessible safe supply.”
British Columbia lost 179 more people to the toxic drug crisis in October.— Sonia Furstenau (@SoniaFurstenau) November 30, 2022
Every single one is an avoidable death
Premier @Dave_Eby needs to make clear to British Columbians what he intends to do to address the toll of the illicit toxic drug supply. 1/ #bcpoli #safesupply
“Safe supply” refers to prescribing substances like heroin to people who use drugs. Deaths are typically caused not by overdosing on heroin, but by the other substances that exist in street-level drugs, be it synthetic opioids like fentanyl or Naloxone-resistant sedatives like etizolam. Safe supply ensures drug uses know what they are consuming.
Benzodiazepines were found in 22 per cent of all drug samples in August 2022. Between July 2020 and August 2022, etizolam (a benzo analogue) was present in 38 per cent of drug toxicity deaths.
There have been no deaths linked to the province’s prescribed safe supply program, which the government says has had 14,000 participants between March 2020 and July 2022. Over a third (35.4 per cent) of all people receiving prescription safe supply are in Vancouver Coastal Health authority.
To the end of October, 453 people in Vancouver have died from toxic illicit drugs so far this year. 51 people passed away in the city in October 2022, an increase of one person over the previous month, and a decrease from 57 in October 2021.
The coroner’s report emphasizes that no deaths have happened at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites. Between January 2017 and September 2022, there have been more than 3.3 million visits to safer consumption sites.
Provincewide decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will take effect on January 31, 2023. It is unclear whether partial decriminalization will affect the number of fatalities.
As of December 1, 2022, it has been 2,423 days since the illicit drug toxicity public health crisis was declared.