B.C. hits five-year anniversary of opioid crisis emergency

·3 min read

BC recently passed the five-year anniversary of the public health emergency that was declared in response to the ongoing opioid crisis.

Flags around the province were lowered to half-mast, as the BC Coroners Service reported that illicit drugs have claimed the lives of at least 7,072 British Columbians since the public health emergency was first declared by then provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall on April 14, 2016.

“Today, we remember and grieve the thousands of people who have lost their lives in B.C. due to a toxic illicit drug supply,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, BC Coroners Service.

“I extend my heartfelt condolences to all of those who have lost a beloved family member or friend as a result of the unscrupulous and profit-driven illicit drug market. The tragic loss of these thousands of individuals underlines the urgent need for a substantial shift in our provincial and national response to problematic substance use.”

The declaration of the public health emergency marked the first time the provincial health officer served notice to exercise emergency powers under the Public Health Act. BC was the first province to take such drastic action in response to illicit drug toxicity deaths.

Despite actions taken at various levels of government aimed at reducing illicit drug deaths and to reduce harm, the province has continually set new records for illicit drug toxicity deaths.

A record high was announced in 2020, when 1,724 people died in the province over the course of the year. 329 deaths occurred in the first two months of 2021.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how, as a province and a nation, we can mobilize and achieve incredible things together, it has also revealed a sadder truth – some dangers evoke more community concern than others,” Kendall said.

“There is a stark and dreadful contrast in how we as a society have responded to the two public health emergencies. 2021 is the year to stop temporizing and take the necessary steps to put an end to this tragedy.”

The entire province has been affected by the opioid crisis, with no region being spared. However, First Nations communities have been disproportionately impacted, with the First Nations Health Authority reporting that between Jan. and May of 2020, 89 First Nations individuals died in BC due to illicit drug toxicity. This marked a 93% increase from the same period in 2019. During that period, 16% of all illicit drug deaths in BC were First Nations people, despite being just 3.3% of BC’s population.

“The data underscores the immense toll that illicit drug toxicity is having on the lives of Indigenous people and their communities in B.C.,” said Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer, FNHA.

“That the opioid crisis continues to wreak havoc on Indigenous people five years after the B.C. government’s declaration of a public health emergency on opioid use is a clear indication that there is still much more to be done to resolve this tragic public health issue.”

Lapointe said, “I am encouraged to hear governments at all levels resolving to address substance use and the terrible toll of this health challenge in a meaningful, evidence-based and compassionate manner. It is my sincere hope that, five years from now, we will look back with gratitude at the courageous and innovative steps taken to end this crisis.”

Morgan Hampton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Merritt Herald