Toxic drug supply claims another 174 lives in B.C.

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Six people died each day in February in B.C. as a result of illicit drug toxicity, according to preliminary data released by the BC Coroners Service.

There were 174 deaths linked to toxic drugs in February, making it the 17th consecutive month in which over 150 lives were lost.

“As we approach the sixth anniversary of the declaration of the public-health emergency into substance-related harms, we are continuing to lose members of our communities at an unprecedented and terrifying rate,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner. “The deaths of another 174 B.C. residents, so many of them young and middle-aged men with years of life ahead of them, is yet another reminder that urgent action is needed on a province-wide scale.”

Nearly 80 per cent of those dying in 2022 were male, according to the BC Coroners Service report.

The province-wide death rate now stands at 43.5 per 100,000 residents, but rates of death in some health authorities, including Northern Health (62.7) and Vancouver Coastal (52.8), are significantly higher, according to the report. Island Health’s death rate is the lowest in B.C. at 35.4 deaths per 100,000 residents.

By Health Service Delivery Area, the highest death rates were recorded in Vancouver (78.0), Thompson Cariboo (76.2) and Northern Interior (73.6). 

Notably, while 74 per cent of deaths in 2022 were between 30 and 59 years of age, six of the lives lost in February were under the age of 19 after zero such deaths were reported in January.

Fentanyl continues to be the predominant substance found in post-mortem testing, according to the BC Coroners Service. Alarmingly, the toxicity of fentanyl is growing with February being the third consecutive month in which more than 20 per cent of fentanyl-positive test results had concentrations greater than 50 micrograms per litre, according to a media release by the provincial government. 

Between July 2020 and February 2022, etizolam was detected in 41 per cent of expedited testing results. This benzodiazepine analogue has a highly sedating effect that cannot be reversed by naloxone and, as a result, its presence creates significant life-saving challenges for first responders, the province said.

“I recognize that the concept of safer supply is difficult for some to understand given the many decades of a punitive, enforcement-based approach to substance use,” Lapointe said. “However, unless we act quickly to provide a safe, regulated source of the drugs people are using in every community across our province, people we love will continue to be vulnerable to the profit-driven, chaotic illicit drug market.”

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