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B.C. recorded 211 toxic drug deaths — almost 7 a day — in January, coroner reports

Outreach workers outside St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver raise awareness and remember those who died from overdoses on Aug. 31, 2022.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Outreach workers outside St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver raise awareness and remember those who died from overdoses on Aug. 31, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

B.C.'s coroner says a further 211 lives were lost to illicit toxic drugs in the province in January 2023.

It's the second-highest recorded number for the calendar month over the past decade, behind last year, when 216 deaths were reported.

The figures in the coroner's monthly report on suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths mean that an average of 6.8 people died every day in January.

Of those who died, 69 per cent were between the ages of 30 and 59, and 77 per cent were male.

Death rate has doubled since emergency declaration

The Vancouver Coastal Health region recorded the most deaths, at 68, followed by the Fraser Health region at 60.

More than 11,000 British Columbians have now died due to toxic illicit drugs since a public health emergency was declared over the fatalities in April 2016, making it the leading cause of unnatural deaths in the province.

Overall, the death rate in January is 47 per 100,000 individuals. That's more than double the 20.5 rate in 2016, the year the public health emergency was declared.

There is no evidence prescribed safe supply is contributing to toxic drug deaths in the province, the coroner said.

2 deaths in overdose prevention sites

The B.C. Coroners Service is also reporting two rare instances of people dying at overdose prevention sites — one in 2022 and one in 2023.

The service says it believes it's the first time people have died of an overdose at these sites, where for years people have been able to use drugs with the knowledge that help is on hand should something go wrong.

In contrast, more than 1,000 deaths occurred inside private residences in 2022, while more than 600 happened at other indoor locations including hotels and shelters.

About 340 deaths in 2022 happened outdoors.

Statistics don't cover decriminalization

The statistics have yet to show the potential impact of B.C.'s new drug decriminalization policy, which came into effect Jan. 31.

Under the new exemption, British Columbians over 18 can carry up to 2.5 grams of cocaine, opioids, MDMA and methamphetamine for personal use. Officials say police have been instructed not to seize drugs from people, but instead offer "information about health and social supports."

Possession for the purpose of trafficking — or dealing — is still illegal.

WATCH | Will decriminalization save lives in B.C.?

Critics argue decriminalization will have little impact on the death rate as it still doesn't provide users with a safer, regulated supply of drugs without unknown substances mixed in.

Safer supply is still only available to a "small fraction" of people who use drugs, according to Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe. Most supervised consumption sites still don't allow smoking, even though inhalation is responsible for the majority of deaths.

Lapointe says only a small portion of the estimated 74,000 people with diagnosed opioid-use disorder have been able to secure access to safer supply.

Government recovery funding coming

Likewise, she says access to recovery is also limited.

"There are people who are waiting weeks or months for treatment and recovery. There are people who are dying while they're waiting for treatment recovery services," she said in an interview in January.

Since then, the province has announced increased focus on treatment and recovery options, which the coroners' service called "tremendously encouraging."

In a statement issued Tuesday, mental health and addictions minister Jennifer Whiteside noted the province's 2023 budget includes more than $1 billion to improve mental-health and addictions services, including new treatment and recovery beds.

"We know that in order to connect people to treatment and recovery, we must first keep them alive," Whiteside said in a written statement.

Speaking Wednesday on The Early Edition, Whiteside said the death statistics were "tragic and infuriating" and laid some of the blame on COVID-19, saying the health-care system is still recovering from the toll the pandemic took on it.

"We lost so much ground over the course of COVID and what we are doing now is working hard to regain that ground," said Whiteside.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told CBC that the pandemic led to an ever-increasing number of deaths from toxic drugs as more people used alone because of public health restrictions, while the drug supply became increasingly dangerous as more people started concocting their own due to severed supply chains.

"There's no quality assurance to any of it, so things got dramatically worse," Henry said.