Illicit drug overdoses now kill more people in B.C. under 60 than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural diseases combined, according to provincial data.
The B.C. Coroners Service uncovered 1,018 deaths between January and May 2023, fluctuating as high as 227 in January and as low as 176 deaths last month. If the trend persists, 2023 will set the record for drug deaths per annum after 2022.
Giuseppe Ganci, a recovering former cocaine and ecstasy user now helping to treat drug addicts, said the province's move to temporarily decriminalize possession of up to 2.5 grams of heroin, crack, cocaine, fentanyl, MDMA, and meth would not save lives.
Health Canada granted B.C. a subsection 56(1) exemption for three years under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize people who use drugs.
"I've never met a person who uses drugs, including myself, that didn't get help because they felt 'stigmatized,'" said Ganci.
As a former user of alcohol and marijuana at 13 and, by 16, hard drugs, the front-line worker said he could have died at any time, having spent over 20 years in and out of recovery and relapse cycles.
He said it took severe, negative consequences to convince him to seek help. "Decriminalization does not stop overdoses — dissuasion does, prevention does."
However, the province's mental health and addictions ministry contends, "[decriminalization] will break down the barriers that prevent people from reaching out for help and create new pathways to life-saving services."
B.C. decriminalized small amounts of hard drugs as part of their "harm-reduction" efforts, giving addicts a "safer supply" of fentanyl, among other drugs.
The province first introduced supervised drug injection sites in North America in 2003. Since then, drug deaths have skyrocketed.
Since April 2016, drug overdoses have killed 12,264 people in B.C. and over 32,000 people nationwide. Health Canada blamed fentanyl for the overwhelming majority (76%) of those deaths. Of the fatal overdoses reported this year, the province linked 85% of deaths to fentanyl.
Statistics Canada data uncovered a grim reality of Canadians dying from drug abuse during the COVID pandemic.
Fatal overdoses caused by unintentional poisoning of harmful substances like illegal drugs or prescription medicines spiked throughout the pandemic.
A total of 4,605 people died from accidental poisonings in 2020; the following year, the number grew to 6,310.
Overdose deaths in B.C. caused by illicit drugs revealed the province's struggles combating opioid addiction have come to a head.
"British Columbians are continuing to suffer the tragic effects of a toxic and volatile drug supply, with almost six members of our communities dying each day," said the province's chief coroner Lisa Lapointe. She called fentanyl the biggest culprit of accidental overdoses.
In June 2022, StatsCan released a report on the excess mortality among Canadians under 45 as 48.7% in B.C.
Although the federal agency could not attribute the cause for the higher death rates, they said illicit drug overdose could be a factor.
While StatsCan did not articulate how many of the 8,963 non-COVID excess deaths nationwide could be attributed to drug overdose, the report detailed that deaths related to drug use reached record highs during the pandemic.
They attributed 4,605 deaths to accidental poisoning and exposure to harmful substances in 2020 and 6,235 deaths in 2021, adding that Canadians should expect higher numbers after the revised data.
The agency said people under 45 — 55% of the country's population — account for 57% of deaths from overdoses. Before the pandemic, the height of the overdose crisis happened in 2017, when unintentional poisonings caused 4,830 deaths nationwide.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has been working with StatsCan to better understand the reason for the more significant excess mortality. The latter attributed more overdose deaths since the pandemic to explain the alarming trend.
On March 23, PHAC unveiled that 5,360 Canadians died from opioids between January to September 2022. Of those deaths, 3,698 (69%) were under 50, amounting to 13.6 opioid overdose deaths per day over the period.
"Canada has seen substantially elevated numbers of opioid-related deaths and other harms since surveillance began in 2016," reads the report titled "Apparent Opioid and Stimulant Toxicity Deaths." It noted the COVID pandemic "contributed to and exacerbated the crisis."
In 2020, there were 2,640 accidental poisoning deaths, which increased to 3,600 in 2021 for individuals under 45 — a 36% increase. Comparing data between August to December 2019 and the same period in 2022, accidental poisonings fell by 17.3%.
Though excess mortality increased among all age demographics, the rate for Canadians under 45 is significantly higher than for older Canadians.
In October 2021, B.C. submitted to Health Canada that "illicit drug poisoning [is] the leading cause of death amongst British Columbians aged 19 to 39."
Across 2022, the B.C. Coroners Service recorded 2,272 deaths in the province due to illicit drugs, up from 272 fatal drug overdoses in 2001.
First responders in the province documented over 8,500 calls for overdose poisoning that year, with an average of six deaths daily from illicit drug use. They attributed the inflated call volume to more illicit drugs for widespread consumption.
"The drugs are being cut with so many different things at this time," said Keith Stewart, assistant chief of Vancouver Fire Rescue Service. "We're seeing some negative effects."
On March 22, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside received a whopping 45 overdose calls — more than double that of a typical day and a new daily record.
According to Health Canada's 2022/23 departmental plan, "the increasingly toxic drug supply, increased feelings of isolation, stress, and anxiety, and limited availability or accessibility of services for people who use drugs" increased accidental poisonings.