Toxic drug deaths in B.C. surpass 1,600 in 2022 as Ottawa commits $5M to helping people with chronic pain

A pair of shoes representing a life lost to toxic drugs hangs on the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver in August 2020.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A pair of shoes representing a life lost to toxic drugs hangs on the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver in August 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The federal government has announced new tools to help people manage chronic pain in an effort to stem the rate of deaths due to illicit toxic drugs in British Columbia.

The announcement comes the same day the B.C. Coroners Service released its monthly overdose death report, which found at least 171 people died from toxic drugs in B.C. in September.

That means at least 1,644 people have died so far this year — putting the province on track to surpass 2,000 annual deaths for the second year in a row.

"British Columbians are continuing to suffer the tragic effects of a toxic and volatile drug supply, with almost six members of our communities dying each day," chief coroner Lisa Lapointe wrote in a statement.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The statistics also mean B.C. has lost at least 150 people to toxic drugs every month for two years straight.

An estimated 10,505 people have died due to poisoned illicit drugs since B.C. first declared a toxic drug public health emergency in April 2016.

Minister links chronic pain with toxic-drug overdoses

On Monday the federal government announced it would put $5 million toward chronic pain resources in what Carolyn Bennett, minister of mental health and addictions, says is part of an effort to help stop people with untreated pain from seeking relief through toxic street drugs.

She says up to $4.5 million over five years will go toward expanding the Pain Canada Network, enhancing national collaboration, scaling up best practices and expanding resources for those living with chronic pain.

Another $520,000 will support a project to improve access to services for LGBTQ residents in B.C., as well as those in Chinese, Punjabi and Arabic-speaking communities living with chronic pain.

Bennett says the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated challenges for those living with pain, including access to adequate health services and support.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Bennett says that data shows many of those who have died in B.C. sought treatment for their pain in the previous year.

"We have all heard about people being cut off their meds and then going to the street for their drugs. We don't think people should live in pain," Bennett says.

"This will help increase pain management options and awareness about best practices from coast to coast to coast."

All-party report

Lapointe said she was "encouraged" by a report from an all-party health committee in B.C. released last Tuesday that found the province and health authorities need to do more to stop or slow the average of six people dying per day.

The Select Standing Committee on Health issued 37 recommendations to build an array of options for people who use drugs, from increasing harm reduction efforts like naloxone kits and overdose prevention sites to rapidly scaling up prescribed safer supply to separate people from the poisoned illicit drug supply.

The provincial government received the report, but did not commit to accepting all the recommendations and has already passed many of the deadlines outlined.

Men continue to account for the vast majority of people dying due to poisoned drugs in B.C., at 80 per cent, Monday's coroner's report said. More than 70 per cent of people who died were between 30 and 59 years old.

No deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.

"There is no indication that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths," the coroner added.