Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. Province of BC / Flickr

165 British Columbians died from toxic drugs in March, says coroners service

It's the 18th consecutive month that more than 150 people have died in the province from the illicit toxic drug supply.

By Srushti Gangdev | May 4, 2022 |5:00 am

One hundred and sixty-five lives were lost in BC to the toxic drug crisis in March, the BC Coroners Service latest report has revealed.

That’s the second highest number of lives lost ever in the month of March, and an average of 5.3 deaths per day.

And while the number represented a slight decrease over January and February, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe cautioned in a press release that the illicit street supply of drugs remains volatile and unpredictable, putting people who use drugs at enormous risk.

The frequency of benzodiazepines—which saw a surge in prevalence in the street supply over the past few years and particularly after the pandemic started, and don’t respond to naloxone—went down in March, showing up in 32% of samples compared to 52% in January.

Meanwhile, previously undetected substances like flualprazolam, a depressant of the benzodiazepine class, are showing up in test results more and more frequently.

But the substance found most frequently was still fentanyl—present in 94% of samples tested after illicit drug toxicity deaths.

“Toxic illicit drugs are taking lives and inflicting devastating impacts on people from all walks of life. Along with the obvious tragedy of fatal outcomes, survivors of drug-toxicity emergency events often experience serious long-term health challenges,” Lapointe said.

“I am hopeful that implementation of the death review panel’s recommendation to significantly and rapidly expand access to safer supply across the province will begin to diminish the terrible harms people in BC are currently experiencing.”

The coroners service’s most recent death review panel on toxic drug deaths, released at the end of March, said urgent action was needed to stop the stem of deaths—and, as Lapointe said then, to ensure that BC won’t lose another 2,200 members of our community this year.

The panel recommended a rapid expansion of safe supply, a 30/60/90 day action plan, and increased access to substance use treatment.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson issued a brief, 178-word statement Tuesday on the latest report, recommending that anyone using drugs recreationally or regularly “stay safer” by refraining from using alone, carrying naloxone, or visiting a supervised consumption site or overdose prevention site.

“It’s tragic that 165 people lost their lives to the toxic drug crisis in March. My heart is with the families and friends who are grieving, and my thanks to the front-line workers and peers who tried to save them,” her statement reads.

“Every life lost is a tragedy. Our government remains committed to doing what it takes to turn the tide on this crisis. Almost every week, new mental-health and substance-use supports are added to save lives, yet the terribly toxic street drug supply continues to take lives. We know there is more work to do, and we won’t stop until we turn this crisis around.”

In separate statements, however, the BC Liberal Party and BC Green Party noted that in less than a week, the NDP will miss the deadline for the death review panel’s first recommendation—to lay out a framework for safe supply by May 9.

“In spite of this deadline being missed, the select standing committee on health is taking this work seriously. Earlier this week we met for the first time to hear presentations from the provincial health officer and the deputy chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority. We must implement the solutions to this health emergency,” Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said in a statement.

A statement from BC Liberal MLA Trevor Halford, who’s the opposition critic for mental health and addictions, urged the provincial government to accept all 23 recommendations laid out by
the death review panel.

“Sadly, there continues to be lots of rhetoric, but little action and urgency from John Horgan and the NDP government as they disregard the life-saving goals and timelines laid out in this report,” Halford said.

“With twice as many people now dying from overdoses compared to when the public health emergency was first declared, it’s clear the NDP’s current patchwork approach is not working.”

Five hundred and forty-eight people died in the province between January and March, compared to 535 last year; 19 of them were in Burnaby.

For 18 consecutive months, the province has seen more than 150 deaths from illicit drugs.

More than 9,500 people have died in BC since the provincial government declared the toxic drug crisis a public health emergency on April 14, 2016. Unless things change dramatically, the province will exceed 10,000 deaths in a few short months.

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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