6 months, over 1000 lives lost

34 Burnaby residents are among the more than 1,000 British Columbians who have lost their lives to toxic drugs in the first 6 months of this year.

And toxic drug overdoses are now killing more people aged 18-39 in the province than any other cause of death.

The sobering statistic was released yesterday in a BC Coroners report that coincided with International Overdose Awareness Day.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe also gave a press conference Tuesday morning, accompanied by BC Emergency Health Services advanced care paramedic Brian Twaites and co-founder of advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm Leslie McBain.

McBain called the situation “dismal and tragic.”

“How many people must die before all levels of government have the courage, the sense of immediacy, and the lack of stigma to say enough is enough and to widely implement the measures that we know through evidence … will keep people alive?”

“We are doing essentially nothing and expecting things to improve,” she said.

Government officials who could have provided answers to McBain’s question—like Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson, Health Minister Adrian Dix, or provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry—were conspicuously absent at the press conference.

Lapointe was asked by reporters if those officials’ non-attendance Tuesday was a reflection of the province’s lack of urgency to find solutions to the toxic drug crisis.

“The public health emergency was declared in 2016 with the best of intentions … and the expectation that response would be commensurate with the impact. We haven’t seen that,” Lapointe said.

The COVID pandemic, she said, was proof that governments and ministers could work together to get things done in relatively short amounts of time if necessary, but said it made her sad to see the attention given to one public health emergency and not to the other.

While Dix and Henry were not present at the press conference to discuss the overdose numbers, they did hold one a couple hours later Tuesday to release updated COVID modelling. Dix opened that press conference by acknowledging International Overdose Awareness Day and saying that the crisis required “significant government action.”

Lapointe said the steps governments must take to save lives are clear—decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs, and establishing a safe, regulated supply of pharmaceutical alternatives to toxic street drugs.

Both the BC Greens and the BC Liberals have called for cross-party collaboration to take immediate action.

“We need the political will, courage, and consensus to make the much-needed policy and legislative changes that will help people immediately,” BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau said in a press release.

“This includes access to safe supply, decriminalization of people who use drugs, investment in treatment and non-stigmatized support for people who use drugs.”

Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson put out a statement several hours after the coroners report was released, saying that the NDP government is “working hard to separate people from the poisoned drug supply and build more treatment beds and recovery options.”

She also touted the province’s work on prescribed safer supply.

The Ministry says one of the barriers to safe supply in BC is a reluctance on the part of some health practitioners to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives for fear that they may exacerbate a person’s dependence.

Lapointe said the data collected by the BC Coroners Service this year, however, showed that there was less risk of overdose for people who were using prescribed opioids as opposed to street drugs. Fentanyl was present in about 85% of all recorded overdose deaths.

At least 1,011 British Columbians died as a result of toxic drugs between January and June of this year—the largest number ever recorded in the first 6 months of a calendar year—but the number is still expected to rise as coroners confirm the cause of death in other cases. The rate of death in BC is now 39 per 100,000 people.

As BC careens towards another record-setting year for fatalities, the crisis is disproportionately affecting Indigenous people, who died at 5.3x the rate of non-Indigenous people in 2020.