Overdose deaths in B.C. declined in first 3 months of 2019, but carfentanil on the rise

The BC Coroners Service found illicit drug overdoses are down in the first quarter of 2019 compared to the same quarter last year. AP file Photo/Patrick Sison

Illicit drug overdose deaths could finally be on the decline in B.C.

According to the latest numbers from the BC Coroners Service released Wednesday, 89 people died per month from overdoses during the first three months of 2019.

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While that equals an average of just under three deaths a day, it still marks a drop of 32 per cent from the same period in 2018, marking the first decline seen in the quarter year-over-year since 2012.

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The smallest decline happened in February when deaths fell from 88 in 2018 to 63 in 2019.

“To see that there’s been a modest decrease in the first quarter I think everyone is pleased to see, but it’s like if a community we were drowning and could see a boat in the distance that would be a reason for optimism, but we’re still drowning,” said Dr. Evan Wood, executive director for the BC Centre on Substance Use.

Data from the BC Coroners Service found the number of overdose deaths from illicit drugs marked a sharp decline in the first quarter of 2019, compared to the same time period last year. B.C. Coroners Service

While the drop is a positive sign in the ongoing fight against the opioid crisis in B.C., there’s still plenty of concern when it comes to the roles fentanyl and carfentanil are playing.

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The coroner found both deadly drugs were detected in roughly 85 per cent of all overdose deaths during the quarter, compared to 87 per cent in 2018.

While that marks a two per cent decrease, the number of carfentanil-related deaths has exploded.

Within the first three months of 2019 alone, that number jumped by 10 deaths, from 16 in January to 26 in March.

“That’s a cause for concern,” said BC Coroners Spokesperson Andy Watson.

“Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than fentanyl. It’s used as a tranquilizer for big animals like elephans. So with this coming into the drug supply … huge cause for concern from a standpoint of something new in the market.”

The number of deaths in January also marked a significant bump from just three in December 2018.

The coroner said carfentanil was detected in a quarter of all fentanyl-related deaths between January and March.

The numbers also found nine in every 10 illicit drug overdose deaths happened inside, with more than half of them in private residences.

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Wood said that may be a product of the ongoing stigmatization of drug use, and said it is time for the government to seriously look at decriminalization of hard drugs to allow for a clean drug supply.

“Addiction is the only disease where the disease is essentially illegal, and the primary longstanding response has been to treat this as a criminal justice issue which result sin all the shame and stigma and fear and contributes to people using alone,” he said.

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No deaths occurred at supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites, the coroner found.

A public health emergency was declared in B.C. in April 2016. According to past coroner data, 993 British Columbians died of illicit drug overdoses that year.

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In 2017, that number jumped by nearly 50 per cent to 1,487. In 2018, overdoses claimed 1,489 lives.

The City of Vancouver recorded a total of 991 deaths over the same three-year period.

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