The B.C. Coroners Service said 2,224 people died from suspected illicit drug overdose deaths in 2021, a 26 per cent spike from 2020.
Six years after B.C. declared a public health emergency because of rising opioid drug-overdose deaths, the province’s death toll has hit a grim record, once again prompting calls for action, including better access to a safe drug supply.
According to the B.C. Coroners Service report released Wednesday, 2,224 people died from suspected illicit drug overdose in 2021 — the highest-ever annual tally and a 26 per cent increase over the number of deaths in 2020.
November and December were the two deadliest months on record, with 210 and 215 deaths, respectively, the equivalent of about seven deaths per day.
“It is with tremendous sadness that I report our province is in a worse place than it has ever been in this drug toxicity crisis,” said Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe during a news conference.
In 2012, when B.C. first saw the introduction of illicit fentanyl in the drug supply, the rate of overdose deaths was six-per-100,000. In 2021, the death rate is now 43-per-100,000.
“The status quo is not working,” Lapointe said, adding that current drug policies cost millions-of-dollars in policing, emergency response, incarceration and health care, while failing to reduce harm and prevent deaths.
Lapointe said she’s hopeful that the federal government would approve the province’s request for an exemption from Health Canada that would, in effect, decriminalize personal possession of drugs. She also called for improved access to a safe supply of drugs.
Sheila Malcolmson, minister responsible for Mental Health and Addictions, said the latest figures are “unacceptable” and more work needs to be done.
But B.C. is fighting an uphill battle. Illicit drugs have become more contaminated since the start of COVID-19. In the first months of 2020, the concentration of fentanyl detected in drug overdose deaths was around four to eight per cent. By the end of last year, it had jumped to between 24 and 28 per cent.
Malcolmson said the province has made “historic” investments and launched initiatives in a bid to quell overdose harms. There are now 39 overdose prevention sites across the province, up from a single site in 2016. B.C. has also added hundreds of treatment and recovery beds, and expanded the number of doctors and registered nurses who can prescribe safe supply to patients.
But change isn’t happening fast enough and there are gaps in the system, acknowledged Malcolmson: “The expansion of services and supports is historic and it’s not enough. We are swimming against a rising tide of need so we are determined to do more and continue to build those systems.”
Critics say the province’s efforts aren’t working.
“When the numbers go up and people are dying in record numbers, they’re not attacking the problem in a way that’s helpful,” said Leslie McBain, co-founder of the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm. McBain lost her son, Jordan Miller, to an overdose in 2014 when he was 25 years old.
The province’s safe-supply measures are too limited to make a significant difference, she said: “Until they make the courageous decision to implement a widespread, accessible, legal safe supply, the deaths are going to continue.”
The face of the victims of B.C.’s overdose crisis has been consistent over the last six years: The majority of deaths are among people age 30 to 59 (71 per cent). More than three-quarters are male. Most deaths occur indoors, with 56 per cent in private homes, 28 per cent in other types of residences including social and supportive housing, SROs, shelters and hotels, while 15 per cent occurred outside in vehicles, streets, parks or sidewalks.
There have been no deaths reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites, noted the report.
While fentanyl remains the most common drug involved in overdose deaths, benzodiazepines are now being detected in about half of samples tested. Lapointe warned this could mean more overdose deaths in the future as benzodiazepine is a sedative, not an opioid, and can’t be reversed by naloxone, which is used as an antidote to treat opioid poisoning.
Among health authorities, the highest rates of overdose deaths were recorded in Vancouver Coastal Health, where there were 49 deaths per 100,000 individuals, and Northern Health, where the rate was 48-per-100,000.
Two drug-user activist groups — The Drug User Liberation Front and the B.C. Association of People on Opiate Maintenance — said Wednesday that they planned to distribute their own safer supply of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine to members as an act of civil disobedience and to commemorate the 2021 overdose deaths. The groups want a safe and accessible drug supply, and a framework that allows decriminalization, licences and funds compassion clubs.
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