Five people dying every day from toxic illicit drugs in B.C.: Coroner

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VICTORIA — Doctors and nurses are being asked to support British Columbia's safe supply drug program and other substance use measures, as an average of five people a day die from illicit drug overdoses, the B.C. Coroners Service says.

There were 162 overdose deaths in B.C. last month, more than double the 75 recorded in October last year.

The number of deaths in each health authority is at or near the highest monthly total ever recorded, the coroners service said Wednesday in a news release. 

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the supply of street drugs and is disrupting access to harm-reduction services such as supervised injection sites.

"We encourage clinicians to support those at risk of overdose by prescribing safe supply and reducing the numbers of lives lost to toxic substances," she said in the statement. 

The coroners service continues to advocate for an accessible, evidence-based and accountable treatment and recovery system for drug users, Lapointe added.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry authorized registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs in September.

Before that, only doctors and nurse practitioners were able to prescribe drugs, including substitute medications for illicit-drug users.

But advocates for drug users say there is still a lack of medical personnel prescribing safe, prescription alternatives to illicit drugs.

"They're not prescribing to the extent they should be," said Karen Ward, a drug rights advocate and a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver.

"They need to be prescribing assertively and doing outreach," she said in an interview. 

Ward said drug users and advocates feel as if the relentless death toll is like an "ongoing tidal wave."

She questioned why there is still a lack of prescribing guidelines related to Henry's September order.

"That was two months ago … why aren't they done? This should have been done that day," Ward said.

Leslie McBain, the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said she's devastated by the latest numbers from the coroners service.

"I don't know if it can get much worse than this for people," she said in an interview. 

There needs to be more people willing and able to prescribe prescription alternatives to illicit drugs, McBain said, and the provincial government needs to listen to drug users about the type of alternative drugs they want.

"The drugs being offered to people were not the drugs they were used to or would keep them in a balanced, stable place," she said.

October is the fifth month this year that more than 160 people have died and the eighth consecutive month with more than 100 deaths.

The latest toxicology testing suggests an increase in the number of cases with extreme concentrations of the opioid fentanyl between April and October compared with previous months, Lapointe said in her statement.

Henry echoed Lapointe's concerns, saying the pandemic is having a devastating effect on the overdose crisis.

"Now more than ever, we must remove the stigma of drug use and remove the shame people feel, which keeps them from seeking help or telling friends and family," she said in a statement on Wednesday.

There have been 1,386 deaths from suspected overdoses since January, nearly 400 more deaths than when a public health emergency was declared by the provincial government in April 2016.

— By Nick Wells in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2020.

The Canadian Press