The BC Coroners Service has found 201 people died from suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in October, the province’s deadliest month on record.
The 1,782 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths between January and October this year are also the highest ever recorded in a calendar year, the service revealed on Thursday.
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe is scheduled to speak to reporters at 9 a.m. PT. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson is scheduled to speak at 10 a.m. PT.
“Today is a heart-rending milestone for our province,” Lapointe said in an early statement.
“The deaths of more than 200 of our community members in one month due to toxic drugs is a devastating loss.”
The previous high was 1,765 deaths for all of 2020. The number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in October 2021 works out to about 6.5 deaths per day.
In November, the province asked the federal government for an exemption from criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
After an announcement last April, the province officially became the first to ask Ottawa for the exemption from Health Canada under Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
British Columbia declared a provincial health emergency in 2016 to provide additional resources to help prevent drug overdose deaths.
“In the sixth year of this public health emergency, we are experiencing a record loss of life and I know this news will resonate with tremendous sadness amongst the thousands of families who have lost a loved one to this crisis,” Lapointe said.
“My thoughts continue to be with every family and community that is grieving the loss of a loved one.”
The request is one supported by Lapointe and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Preliminary data in 2021 has found that fentanyl or its analogues have been detected in 84 per cent of all illicit drug toxicity deaths.
Carfentanil has been detected in 152 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in the first 10 months of 2021, compared to 66 deaths in 2020.
October marks the 13th consecutive month in which there were at least 150 deaths due to toxic illicit drugs.
There has been 419 illicit drug overdose deaths in Vancouver alone so far this year, matching the entirety of 2020 in the city.
The impacts of the illicit drug crisis are being felt by communities throughout B.C.
The largest numbers of deaths continue to be recorded in urban centres such as Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.
The overall rate of death in the province stands at 41.2 per 100,000 residents, more than double the rate recorded in 2016 (20.4).
“This is a health crisis,” Lapointe said.
“I cannot stress enough how urgent this emergency has become. A comprehensive plan to ensure access to safe supply for the thousands of B.C. residents dependent on these substances is essential. Shifting from a punishment and stigmatizing regime to a decriminalized, health-focused model is also a critical step to reduce suffering and save lives.”
The BC government announced what it called a historic $500-million investment announced in the April budget for mental health and addictions.
Most recently the funding was used in Fraser Health for new addictions medicine teams that will offer expertise to hospital-based patients.
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson described October’s overdose numbers as ‘heartbreaking’.
“I feel British Columbia’s grief and frustration. Almost every person in the province knows someone whose life has been touched by the poisoned drug crisis. I am so sorry for each loss and send strength to everyone who is mourning someone they love,” Malcolmson said.
“It has been a very difficult year for so many people in British Columbia. We’ve endured floods, wildfires, heat waves and the confirmation of unmarked graves at former Indian Residential School sites. And on top of the direct challenges of COVID-19, the drug supply has become increasingly toxic.”
BC Liberal critic Trevor Halford says the government continues to ‘tinker around the edges’ when it comes to addressing the ongoing crisis.
“Every month we get the same formulaic response from the NDP and it’s just not good enough for the families who continue to lose loved ones,” Halford said.
“The minister will say what a tragedy it is, express sadness and hope things get better. Nice words aren’t enough. We need action, concerted and focused action, that attacks the problem — not empty words.”