BC’s chief coroner ‘increasingly frustrated’ as toxic drug deaths rise
As of Oct 31, Burnaby has seen 61 toxic drug deaths this year, among 1,782 thoughout BC
Sixty-one people are dead in Burnaby from toxic drug overdoses this year, among 1,782 people in BC.
The coroners service posted its latest monthly update—with data up to Oct 31—on toxic drug deaths in BC, and both local and provincial figures mark grim new milestones.
Before 2021, Burnaby had never seen more than 57 deaths from the toxic drug supply in a year, and BC had never seen more than 1,765. And two more months of data remain to be seen.
In a news conference yesterday, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said it has been “very frustrating” to see less urgency from governments to address the issue than is the case with COVID.
“And it’s increasingly frustrating. It’s very difficult for those who are dealing with this crisis every day,” she said. “It’s hard to understand why this is not being treated with the same urgent, all-hands-on-deck response that we’ve seen with other public health or public safety emergencies.”
With six people dying a day from toxic drugs, Lapointe noted that, between now and Christmas, about 90 more people could be dead.
Lapointe compared the issue to the 8.6 million COVID vaccine doses that have been distributed in BC this year, noting various governments have failed to put similar efforts into rolling out a safe supply for drug users.
Experts around the country have been advocating for safe supply—that is, prescription grade heroin, fentanyl, hydromorphone, and other—for drug users who don’t respond well to opioid agonist therapies, including methadone and suboxone.
“I don’t want to be here every month, sharing yet another grim new record of lives lost. And we’re talking about young people,” she said, noting the average age of death due to drug toxicity is 43 years.
She added that it’s the leading cause of death for people aged 19 to 39.
“This is a significant public health crisis, and it absolutely needs a significant public health response,” she said.
‘Magical thinking’ that crisis will go away
Asked if she believes policymakers are culpable in the deaths as a result of their inaction, Lapointe said her role was not to find blame. Instead, she would “encourage” people with influence to take action.
“Everybody who has influence, who has the authority, who may be reluctant to engage, who thinks that, somehow, with some magical thinking, this crisis is going to go away on its own: it is not,” she said.
“If we have the ability to make a difference—if we have the ability to prevent five or 10 deaths or 100 deaths over the next month—what a fortunate place we are in. That is an amazing ability,” she said.
“Wanting to wait for years worth of evidence is not acceptable in this situation.”
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson also spoke to media yesterday, following Lapointe’s conference, and said the government is “unwavering in its commitment” to ending the toxic drug crisis.
In particular, she cited the government’s work to date on safe supply, including introducing fentanyl patches for some users, as well as BC’s application for an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs, and the addition of new treatment beds.
However, the BC government has taken flak for all of those issues, with critics saying the province is moving too slowly and without urgency on a safe supply, and that its decriminalization proposal doesn’t go nearly far enough.
And drug user advocates have questioned the reliance on treatment beds, with BC’s drug use treatment industry still under-regulated and with shaky evidence many types of treatment—particularly 12-step programs.
All-party committee on toxic drug deaths
In written statements, BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau and BC Liberal Party mental health and addiction critic Trevor Halford both noted the monthslong calls from each party for an all-party committee on the matter.
However, that’s effectively where their calls part ways, with Furstenau calling for an “immediate expansion” of a regulated safe supply of drugs in BC.
The BC Liberals, meanwhile, called for treatment beds, comparing BC’s 105 new beds in 2020 to Alberta’s 8,000 newly funded treatment beds since 2019.
Alberta has also come under fire in recent years for closing harm reduction services, like Calgary’s only supervised consumption site.
Malcolmson noted her government “added hundreds [of treatment beds] already, and we’re going to add hundreds more.”
And in response to a question about the efficacy of treatment, she said the government is monitoring the new treatment beds that it creates.
“We are building in that evaluation and monitoring so that we gather evidence, but there is strength in diversity,” she said, noting that different forms of treatment work for different people.