More than 10,000 people have fatally overdosed since B.C. declared a public health emergency over toxic illicit drugs more than six years ago.
Preliminary data released by the BC Coroners Service Tuesday shows that at least 1,095 B.C. residents are believed to have succumbed to a toxic drug supply between January and June of this year.
It’s the greatest loss of life due to toxic drugs ever recorded in the first half of a calendar year and means that on average, more than six people have died every day so far this year, according to the BC Coroners Service.
“The ever-increasing toxicity of the unregulated, illicit drug market is taking a heart-breaking toll on the lives and well-being of members of our communities across the province,” said B.C.’s Chief Coroner, Lisa Lapointe. “Deaths due to toxic drugs in the first half of 2022 have surpassed the number of deaths experienced in the same period in 2021, putting our province, once again, on track for a record loss of life.”
Of those deaths, 78 per cent of victims were men and nearly the same number (73%) were between the ages of 30-59.
The highest number of deaths due to illicit drug overdoses were seen in the Fraser Health region (352) followed by Vancouver Coastal Health (297).
In Victoria, 80 people died between January 1 and June 30 of this year — the third-highest death toll in the province, behind only Vancouver and Surrey — outpacing the number of fatalities from previous years. In the Island Health region overall, there have been 187 deaths due to toxic drugs so far this year — a rate of 42.5 per 100,000 residents.
Lapointe said with numbers of deaths higher than ever so far this year, and the overdose crisis now claiming more than 10,000 lives since a public health emergency was declared in 2016, a safe supply for drug users is a necessity to stem the crisis.
“As recommended by the subject matter experts on the recent Death Review Panel, it is imperative that we urgently provide access to safer supply across our province. It’s only when we drastically reduce people’s reliance on the profit-driven, illicit drug trade, that we will save lives and turn the trajectory of this crisis around,” she said in a statement.
The latest coroner report found that the majority of deaths occurred indoors — 56 per cent in private residents and 27 per cent in other types of homes including social and supportive housing, single-room occupancies, shelters and hotels. Fifteen per cent occurred outdoors.
The BC Coroners Service also said that toxicology analysis on victims “shows no indication that prescribed safe supply” is what caused any deaths.
Earlier this year, a panel of experts convened by the coroners service called for increased access to safer supply to reduce the number of illicit drug-related deaths in the province.
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson issued a statement in response to the BC Coroners Service’s report, saying her government has added more substance use beds in hard-hit areas.
“We’re expanding treatment and recovery options with more substance use beds in the Okanagan, Nanaimo, Maple Ridge, and Prince George, and addiction medicine services in Vernon, Kamloops and Abbotsford. We’re also leading the country on decriminalization and prescribed safer supply,” she said.
However, Malcolmson said more work is needed as drug toxicity outpaces the addition of new prevention services, adding that the concentration of fentanyl detected in overdose deaths was 27 per cent in June 2022 — far higher than the first few months of 2020, when it was between four and eight per cent.
Overall, fentanyl has been detected in 88 per cent of deaths between July 2020 and June 2022, followed by cocaine (45%), methamphetamine (41%) and etizolam (39%).