At least 195 people died due to an illicit drug overdose in B.C. in May — the highest death toll ever recorded in that calendar month, according to the latest statistics released Thursday by the B.C. Coroners Service.
In the five-month period from January to May, 940 people lost their lives from drug overdoses, an average of more than six people a day.
It puts B.C. on track to match last year's record-setting death toll of 2,265 lives lost to toxic drugs.
Fentanyl was detected in most of the deaths in May, and around a third involved benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that are naloxone-resistant.
Illicit drug toxicity deaths by year in British Columbia
"After a catastrophic 2021, I am saddened to report that we are, once again, on pace to lose a record number of our community members in 2022," said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner, in a statement. "Every life lost to illicit drugs in our province is a preventable tragedy."
The province has said it is working to prevent the deaths by building addiction treatment facilities and expanding access to a safe supply of drugs. It also pointed to a federal exemption that will decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs starting next year.
Drug user groups, however, say that decriminalization will do little to halt the continuing deaths, and a focus on addictions is not urgent enough to deal with the crisis. They are asking for a rapid expansion of safe supply and life-saving measures like overdose prevention sites.
On Friday, Lapointe said much of the current attitude toward the crisis has to do with decades of stigma.
"Public messaging did a very good job of trying to convince everybody that that these people didn't matter," she told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition. "I think we're pushing back now to say, no, no, no. People who use drugs are the same kind of people who drink a glass of wine or smoke cigarettes.
"They're just regular people. [We're] trying to make sure that regular people aren't dying because of a choice that they make — just like the rest of us make choices every day."
Illicit drug toxicity deaths by month in B.C.
The coroner has said that people dying from overdoses aren't all addicts and that "hardly anybody" is currently able to access a safe supply of drugs.
A March report from the coroners service asked for a provincial framework to provide a safe supply of drugs and targets and time frames to establish a "substance-use system of care."
Lapointe says the government has not yet responded to those recommendations.
"The challenge was that there were no timelines, that there were no targets or specific goals," she said on Friday. "There is some limited access to safe supply in the southern part of our province, the large urban centres, but even then, [it's] very challenging for people.
"It's really making people fall off these programs because [the government] makes it so difficult for them."
Since a public health emergency about the drug poisoning crisis was declared in 2016, more than 10,000 people in B.C. have died of an overdose.