At least 165 more British Columbians died of illicit drug overdoses in the first month of 2021, more than double the number of deaths recorded last January.
An average of more than five people died each day in the deadliest January recorded since the overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency nearly five years ago in April 2016.
January was the 10th consecutive month where more than 100 people died as pandemic-driven border restrictions contributed to an increasingly toxic street supply, and progress dragged on promises of safer supplies for substance users.
The devastating report comes just weeks after the province confirmed 1,726 people died in 2020, making it the deadliest year for overdoses.
“We’re particularly concerned about the toxicity of the drugs detected in many of the deaths recorded in January,” chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a news release.
“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.”
As the province’s death rate per capita climbed to 38 per 100,000 in January, up from 33.1 in 2020, no community has been left untouched.
Northern Health, where harm reduction services are sparse and access to health care can require expensive and time-consuming travel, experienced the highest rate with 71 deaths per 100,000. Vancouver Coastal Health region was second with 52 deaths per 100,000.
According to the most recent data from the First Nations Health Authority, First Nations individuals in B.C. represented 16 per cent of overdoses in the first four months of 2020, up from 9.9 per cent in 2019, despite only representing 3.3 per cent of people in B.C.
Extreme fentanyl concentrations were present in nearly one in five deaths, the most ever recorded, the Coroners Service reported. Benzodiazepines, including analogues like etizolam, were found in almost half of deaths in January.
Etizolam was found in 31 per cent of deaths. In combination with fentanyl, it can repress the respiratory system and significantly increase the risk of overdose.
The province has been spending on new treatment and recovery bed spaces and training nurses to be able to prescribe some first-line opioid substitutes.
It has also approached the federal government about decriminalizing personal possession of illicit substances.
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said in a statement the province had “stepped up our response to these emergencies as quickly as possible in B.C., but the effects of the pandemic on the illicit drug supply chain has made drugs dramatically more toxic than a year ago and, tragically, more lethal.
“We know people are hurting now and we have to do more to stop this terrible surge in overdose deaths,” she said.
But critics have accused the government of moving far too slowly to address the deadly public health crisis.
People who use drugs and advocates say more has to be done to separate people from the illicit supply and provide safer alternatives, particularly for those who can’t or don’t want to access treatment.
In September, the ministry announced it would massively expand eligibility and substances available in safe supply programs in the province.
Safe supply programs aim to separate people from the poisoned street supply by providing pharmaceutical-grade alternatives to illicit drugs. This prevents overdoses because people can be more certain of what they are taking as well as the exact dosage.
The Globe and Mail reported in February that the province is considering a variety of substances, including powdered fentanyl and fentanyl patches, in its safe supply guidance.
But details on the expansion are still scarce six months after it was announced, with hundreds more lives lost in the meantime.
Vancouver is still pursuing its own application to the federal government to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use. It sent its first submission to Health Canada Monday as a step toward formal negotiations.
The city saw 411 people die in 2020, and an additional 42 in January alone.
“Today’s news that 2021 has started off with an even higher level of overdose deaths makes decriminalization and ending the war on people who use drugs even more urgent,” said Mayor Kennedy Stewart in a release.
Staff consulted with Vancouver Coastal Health, community groups and the Vancouver Police Department in the initial submission, which aims to divert people who use substances away from the criminal justice system.
A spokesperson for the mayor said this so-called “Vancouver model” is still being developed.
The city doesn’t plan to use administrative penalties or mandatory treatment as alternatives to criminal sanctions, as seen in the recently approved Oregon model.
But police will be able to determine if the individual is in personal possession and to refer them voluntarily to the city’s Overdose Outreach Team.
Further details and community consultations are expected in April.
Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee