B.C. records another 'record-breaking' year for overdose fatalities

Except for a small dip in 2019, the number of fatal overdoses in B.C. continue to climb. 'More people than ever are dying — nearly seven people every day in 2023,' said the province. Since April 2016, drug overdoses have killed 14,000 people in B.C., mostly from fentanyl.

B.C. records another 'record-breaking' year for overdose fatalities
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A record 2,511 British Columbians died of fatal overdoses last year — continuing the upward trend of drug-related deaths this past decade.

Fast approaching is the one-year mark of a three-year decriminalization pilot project that received federal approval last January 31.

At the time, Health Canada granted the province a subsection 56(1) exemption for three years under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize people who possessed up to 2.5 grams of heroin, crack, cocaine, fentanyl, MDMA and meth.

Except for a small dip in fatal overdoses in 2019, the upward trend has remained steadfast as the province struggles to cope with the potential consequences of its drug policies.

"More people than ever are dying — nearly seven people every day in 2023," said B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa LaPointe. "Each day, coroners across B.C. go into communities and retrieve the bodies of the dead." 

Since April 2016, drug overdoses have killed nearly 14,000 people in B.C. and over 32,000 people nationwide. Health Canada blamed fentanyl for the overwhelming majority (76%) of those deaths. 

This is happening in a context where more than 225,000 people in the province use drugs, noted LaPointe.

"What we hear from people who have lost their children is I hope they didn't die in vain," she said.

Fentanyl, or one of its analogues, caused 90% of illicit drug deaths in B.C. last June, according to provincial data. It linked 85% of fatal overdoses in 2022 to the drug.

A total of 4,605 people died from accidental poisonings in 2020; the following year, the number grew to 6,310, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. They also recorded 2,383 overdose fatalities in 2022.

"We can take measures to save lives, or we can continue to count the dead," LaPointe told reporters on Wednesday, urging the province and opponents of ‘safe supply’ to cease their "politicization" of B.C.’s overdose crisis.

However, the 'safer supply' drug policy has had minimal impacts despite costing more than $820.1 million, according to a health department report published last August. Researchers said while supervised consumption sites saved some lives "opioid-related deaths have remained higher than pre-pandemic levels."

"People have continued to engage in opioid use behaviour that increases risk of harm," said the report. "Minimal changes since 2017 to rates of high-risk substance use suggest further prevention efforts are required."

Amid this worsening overdose crisis, British Columbia's government is urgently challenging a B.C. Supreme Court December 2023 decision that suspended legislation intended to combat illicit drug use in public spaces.

"The rates of substance use, and related harm continue to rise [during] the Covid-19 pandemic," said the report Horizontal Evaluation Of The Canadian Drugs And Substances Strategy. "Deaths from opioid toxicity reached record levels in 2020 and 2021," it said. 

The federal government has committed over $1 billion since 2017 to "directly address the overdose crisis," according to a December 2023 update detailing federal actions. This included more than $359.2 million over five years through Budget 2023 for the renewed Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy (CDSS).

The House of Commons upheld the 'safer supply' policy last May 29 by a 209 to 113 vote, amid calls to "immediately reverse its deadly policies and redirect all funds […] to addiction treatment and recovery programs."

Fatal overdoses are now the leading cause of death for people under 59 in B.C. — exceeding combined deaths from homicides, suicides, accidents and natural diseases.

"It deeply saddens me that we have been unable to influence the essential change necessary to reduce the tragic impacts of toxic drugs on so many thousands of our family members, friends and colleagues across the province," she said while announcing her departure for next month.

LaPointe fears that unless B.C. takes bold steps forward, her successor is likely to announce another record-breaking year for overdose fatalities at the same time next year.

Editor's Note: This story was updated on January 26 to include the latest numbers on Canada's drug strategy.

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