Groups like the Drug User Liberation Front say a safe supply beyond the medical realm is the most effective way out of the toxic drug crisis. (Drug User Liberation Front / Twitter)

It’s already the worst year for toxic drug deaths in Burnaby

Fifty-eight Burnaby residents have died as of Sept 30 this year. That's more in nine months than the 57 toxic drug deaths in 2019.

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November 10, 2021 | 5:00 am

This year is already the worst on record for toxic drug deaths in Burnaby, with 58 people dead in the first nine months of 2021.

That’s according to the monthly statistics report from the BC Coroners Service on drug toxicity deaths in the province. And it’s among 1,534 deaths recorded across the province so far this year.

It means that, by the end of September, Burnaby has already surpassed its previous annual record death toll from toxic drugs.

In the previous update—which provided figures up to the end of July—the total number of deaths in Burnaby was 41. That means an increase of 17, or 41%, in just two months.

After deaths dropped off in 2019—totalling 29 that year in the city—Burnaby and BC surged to new highs in 2020. Locally, 57 people died of toxic drug overdoses last year, topping the previous high of 49 in 2018.

In its current trajectory, Burnaby could hit nearly 80 deaths this year.

Throughout BC, toxic drug deaths hit a high of 1,551 in 2018 before dropping down to 982 in 2019. As in Burnaby, the provincial totals hit a new high of 1,736 last year, as the pandemic simultaneously threw the drug supply into disarray while conflicting with harm reduction precautions.

At its current rate, the province will surpass the 2,000 deaths mark by the end of the year for the first time ever.

Burnaby is one of just two major cities to see this year’s nine-month totals already setting full-year records.

Chilliwack has so far seen 39 people die of toxic drugs, compared to its previous high of 37 in 2018.

Decriminalization and safe supply

In a news release, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe noted the rate of toxic drug deaths “has never been higher,” urging action from different governments.

“Urgent action on a number of fronts is required, including much broader access to safe supply, more readily available and efficient drug-checking services, and a shift from a law-enforcement focus to a health-centred approach,” Lapointe said.

She called BC’s application for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for possession of up to four grams of drugs in the province “an essential step.”

“Criminalizing those who use substances has done nothing to address this complex health issue and has resulted in greater suffering and marginalization,” Lapointe said. “How many more deaths are we willing to accept to maintain drug policies and laws that have no basis in evidence?”

Other groups have denounced the move as not going far enough—namely, drug users say the 4.5-gram limit will still leave users vulnerable to over-policing.

In a joint news release, several groups representing drug users or who work with drug users also called out the province’s exclusion of youths under 19 in the exemption.

“The threshold of 4.5 grams is cumulative, meaning it refers to the combined quantity of drugs allowed to be carried, rather than the amount permitted of each individual substance,” reads the news release, which was co-signed by, among others, Pivot Legal Society, the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and Moms Stop the Harm.

“The word ‘cumulative’ was added at the political level at the 11th hour.”

Members of the province’s core planning table reportedly asked for more time to comment. They say they were denied by Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson, “who added that ‘further amendments would not be possible for some time.’”

Groups like the Drug User Liberation Front say decriminalization is only part of the answer, however. DULF wants to start a compassion club for illicit drugs to replace the safe supply, going beyond the doctor-prescribed model, which has largely stalled with few doctors willing to participate.

At the same time, the City of Burnaby is moving policies in the other direction, giving first, second, and third reading to the controlled substances properties bylaw this week. Drug policy advocate Karen Ward says the bylaw is going in the opposite direction of what’s needed—towards stigmatization and marginalization instead of away from it.

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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