Deadliest April on record: 206 people in BC died from unregulated toxic drugs

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      206 people died from unregulated drugs in BC last month, according to the latest report from the BC Coroners Service.

      An average of 6.9 people in the province died every day, in the deadliest April on record, bringing the total number of deaths in 2023 to 814. If deaths continue at this rate, the unregulated drug death toll will top 2,500 this year. 

      Fentanyl was detected in 79 per cent of unregulated drug deaths recorded in 2023—down from 86 per cent of deaths in 2022, and a mark of the ever-changing chemical nature of the illicit drug supply.

      “This drug poisoning crisis is the direct result of an unregulated drug market,” said BC chief coroner Lisa Lapointe in a statement. “Members of our communities are dying because non-prescribed, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl is poisoning them on an unprecedented scale.”

      Vancouver Centre North, the local health area that covers the Downtown Eastside, has seen 133 deaths so far this year—more than a third of 2022’s total of 323. Last year was the deadliest to date for the neighbourhood, with a death rate of 587.7 per 100,000 people—nearly four times higher than the next most acutely affected area, Terrace. 

      Sarah Blyth-Gerszak, director of an overdose prevention site, suggested that the ongoing decampments in the DTES may have led to more deaths. Anecdotally, she said that more people she knew seemed to be overdosing or dying in April compared to March.

      But unregulated drugs affect all parts of the city and province. 228 people have died in Vancouver so far this year, representing 28 per cent of provincial deaths for a city that has only 12 per cent (662,248 people) of the provincial population (5.4 million people). 

      Attacks on safe supply have been ramping up in recent weeks, most notably from Conservative leader Pierre Polievre, relying on a piece by National Post writer Adam Zivo. Zivo’s paywalled, 10,000-word piece used anecdotal stories to paint prescription hydromorphone as worsening the unregulated drug death crisis.

      There is no evidence that regulated safe supply contributes to deaths from unregulated substances. Currently, around 5,000 people in the province are enrolled in opioid safe supply programs, while tens of thousands more meet the criteria for opioid dependence.

      Advocates, drug users, researchers and the chief coroner herself have all been calling for expanded safe supply for years in order to separate people from the toxic drug supply. 

      In a press release, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said, “My heart goes out to all of the loved ones left behind in the wake of the toxic drug crisis. This crisis continues to take its toll in every part of our province, and I am grateful for the dedicated work of front-line workers and peers who save lives every day.” 

      Similarly to her statement last month, she highlighted the expansion of mental health services and treatment and detox services in the province, but did not discuss safe supply.

      It has been 2,590 days since the unregulated drug death emergency was declared. To date, more than 12,000 British Columbians have died.