155 British Columbians died of illicit drug overdose in February, coroner reports

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People walk past pairs of shoes hung on the Burrard Street Bridge representing a life lost to a drug overdose on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, 2020.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
People walk past pairs of shoes hung on the Burrard Street Bridge representing a life lost to a drug overdose on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Figures for February show 155 people died of suspected illicit drug overdoses in the province last month, according to the BC Coroners Service.

Although down slightly from January's 165 deaths, the rate at which British Columbians are dying of toxic street drugs remains above five per day.

"The continued tragic and unprecedented rate of death in B.C. highlights the urgent need for a multi-faceted, evidence-based and accessible system of care for those experiencing problematic substance use," said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner.

February was the 11th consecutive month in which more than 100 people died of an overdose in the province. The total of 155 deaths is the highest ever recorded in the month of February.

According to the coroners service, "increased variability and toxicity in the drug supply continues to significantly contribute to the overall number of suspected deaths."

Carfentanil — a more potent analogue of fentanyl — was detected in 12 per cent of the February deaths, an increase from the previous month.

B.C. paramedics in full protective gear practise an emergency response to a drug overdose.
B.C. paramedics in full protective gear practise an emergency response to a drug overdose.(Submitted by B.C. Emergency Health Services)

"Across the province, the risk of serious harm or death is very real for anyone using a substance purchased from the illicit market. Decisive action is urgently needed to ensure an accessible, regulated safe supply and to provide people with the supervised consumption, treatment and recovery services they need," said Lapointe.

Of the 329 illicit drug toxicity deaths reported in the first two months of 2021, 81 per cent were male.

The Northern Health Authority region has the highest rate of death per capita in 2021 with 58 deaths per 100,000 people, followed by Vancouver Coastal Health at 44 per 100,000.

So far, 2021 is trending to be worse than 2020, which was the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths with 1,716 fatalities.

The illicit drug supply has become more toxic and dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic, as borders remain closed and more drugs are manufactured or altered locally and people are pushed into further isolation, compounding the effects of stigma that drives people to use drugs alone.

Public health restrictions, first introduced in March 2020 mean fewer people are visiting overdose prevention sites, where staff can intervene to reverse an overdose.

More people died of drug overdoses last year than due to car crashes, homicides, suicides and prescription drug-related deaths combined.