165 people died of an illicit drug overdose in B.C. in January, coroner reports

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Pairs of shoes representing a life lost to a drug overdose hang on Vancouver's Burrard Street Bridge on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Pairs of shoes representing a life lost to a drug overdose hang on Vancouver's Burrard Street Bridge on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The BC Coroners Service says 165 people died of a suspected illicit drug overdose in January, marking the largest-ever number of lives lost due to illicit drugs in the first month of a calendar year.

The figure represents an increase of 104 per cent from the number of deaths in the same month last year, and a seven per cent increase over the number of deaths in December 2020. It also equates to more than five deaths every day of the month.

"These figures are heartbreaking, both in scale and for the number of families who are grieving the loss of a loved one," said Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe.

Nearly one in five deaths — 18 per cent, the highest level to date — involved an "extreme" concentration of fentanyl. The coroner also said etizolam, an unlicensed type of benzodiazepine, was found in nearly half of samples tested in B.C.

There were 14 deaths in which carfentanil was detected, the largest monthly figure involving the more lethal analogue of fentanyl since May 2019.

"We're particularly concerned about the toxicity of the drugs detected in many of the deaths recorded in January," Lapointe said in a statement.

"The findings suggest that the already unstable drug supply in B.C. is becoming even deadlier, underscoring the urgent need for supervised consumption options, prescribing for safe supply, and accessible treatment and recovery services."

The highest rates of deadly overdoses, by health authority, were in the Northern Health and Vancouver Coastal Health areas. There were 71 deaths for every 100,000 people in the north, and 52 for every 100,000 in the Vancouver area.

2020 was deadliest year on record

Last year was the deadliest year ever for overdoses in B.C. In 2020, 1,716 people died due to illicit drug use — a 74 per cent increase over 2019, when 984 people died.

It means more people died of drug overdoses last year than car crashes, homicides, suicides and prescription drug-related deaths combined.

Decades of criminalization, an increasingly toxic illicit drug market and a lack of timely access to treatment and recovery services contributed to the deaths of thousands of British Columbians, Lapointe said in her annual report.

A memorial in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is pictured on Feb. 11.
A memorial in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is pictured on Feb. 11.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

The illicit drug supply in the province has only become more toxic and dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic, as borders remain closed and more drugs are manufactured or altered locally.

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said the pandemic has pushed people further into isolation, compounding the effects of stigma that drives people to use drugs alone.

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

More than half of deadly overdoses in January happened inside a home. Men accounted for 83 per cent of the deaths.

Premier John Horgan and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart have written letters to the federal government asking for an exemption that would allow for the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.

Malcolmson said B.C. is working to add more treatment and recovery options, more services and supports, and to work with the federal government on decriminalization.