BC chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, pictured here at a 2014 press conference. (Province of BC / Flickr)

78 people died in Burnaby from toxic drugs in 2021

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the BC and federal governments' refusal to end the war on drugs has only fuelled the toxic drugs crisis.

By Dustin Godfrey | February 10, 2022 |5:00 am

A total of 78 people died in Burnaby from toxic drugs last year, an increase of nearly 37% over 2021.

That’s a rate of six-and-a-half deaths per month, while the province saw an average of six people die every day, for a total of 2,224 people killed by toxic drugs in BC last year.

“Clearly, the status quo is not working,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, who said last year she is “increasingly frustrated” with the public health crisis.

“If the criminalization of drugs and drug users was supposed to reduce harm and prevent death, it is clearly an abject and very costly failure. It has resulted in shame, fear, and punishment for people of all ages and from all walks of life.”

Lapointe noted the effects of the war on drugs on families’ ability to stay together, employment opportunities for drug users, and on public health.

“It has created a flourishing market for the unregulated illicit drug trade that must constantly recruit new drug users to continue to survive,” Lapointe said.

“It is the antithesis of compassion. The status quo costs us millions in policing, emergency response, short- and long-term healthcare, and incarceration. It creates social mayhem in our communities. It devastates lives.”

And it’s a crisis that has been felt particularly hard by Indigenous communities, said Dr Nel Wieman, chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority.

“The data presented today is deeply disturbing, and especially so for BC First Nations people who continue to be over-represented in the harms from toxic drug poisonings,” she said.

“Today, BC First Nations people are dying due to toxic drugs at a rate more than five times that of non-First Nations people.”

The reason for that disparity, she noted, are the various forms of colonialism and the traumas that resulted from it. That includes residential schools, the ’60s scoop, ongoing child apprehensions and the child welfare system, systemic racism, and lacking access to culturally appropriate mental health and substance use services.

BC’s work so far on toxic drugs

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson spoke to reporters in a separate news conference, in which she said the government had a “heavy heart” when hearing news of the latest statistics.

And she offered the government a pat on the back for its efforts to date, noting that 15,000 people have been connected to “safe supply” programs—although drug policy advocate Karen Ward pointed out that this is inclusive of people on things like methadone or suboxone, which aren’t typically considered to be part of safe supply. But the minister in charge of the province’s toxic drug crisis response said the government isn’t doing enough.

“Again and again, throughout the province, the expansion of services and supports is historic—and it’s not enough,” she said.

And Lapointe did point to some positives, including a handful of safe supply initiatives in the province. But she said it’s not nearly enough and that it isn’t coming fast enough.

“There are some small but mighty safe supply programs and providers working in a few communities—not enough yet,” Lapointe said. “But it is a sign of what’s possible.”

In the past, Malcolmson has said the government needs to take its time on safe supply to ensure it gets it right.

Asked how her ministry justifies continuing to err on the side of under-utilization when thousands of people continue to die while they wait, Malcolmson noted the BC government has a few firsts under its belt.

“British Columbia [is] the first province in the country to apply for decriminalization, the first province to give registered nurses the power to prescribe medication-assisted treatment,” she said, noting 24,000 people are now on medication-assisted treatment.

“We have implemented an unprecedented program, and the expansion of that program is happening right now, with new substances being added. There’s nowhere else in Canada that you can be prescribed a fentanyl patch for the purpose of separating people from toxic drugs.”

And she said comparisons between the government’s response to the two-year-old COVID pandemic and its response to the nearly six-year-old toxic drug crisis weren’t apt.

“Fighting COVID on the foundation of an intact healthcare system is very different from fighting the overdose public health emergency while building a system of care at the same time,” she said.

Speakers in Lapointe’s press conference, however, were not so generous—particularly Guy Felicella, who began his comments by offering an apology to drug users and their loved ones in the absence of an apology from the government.

“I am one of the lucky ones to escape the cycle [of drug use] alive. Many of my friends did not. An apology is at least what we should expect from those we’ve elected at every level of government to protect us and our communities,” said Felicella, a former drug user.

“They have failed us. Their failure is represented by more than 2,200 deaths last year and thousands dead since the crisis began.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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