Opioid overdose deaths reach record numbers in B.C.

Aug 10, 2023

Earlier in June, the BC Coroners Service reported 184 opioid overdose-related deaths, averaging approximately 6.1 deaths per day, totalling 1,200 deaths so far in 2023. Moreover, these numbers represent a 17% increase compared to the number of opioid overdose-related deaths in June 2022, also corresponding to a 2% increase compared to May 2023.

“Illicit fentanyl continues to drive the crisis, which is causing deaths in large and small municipalities, towns and cities across the province. This health emergency is not confined to one neighbourhood or one demographic. Anyone accessing an illicit substance is at risk of serious harm or death,” said B.C. chief coroner Dr. Lisa Lapointe in a released statement.

The released data also demonstrates that fentanyl or one of its analogues played a role in approximately 90% of illicit drug deaths recorded in the province in June. Furthermore, stimulants were detected in approximately three-quarters of drug samples tested in June, while almost all illicit drug-related deaths involved a mix of toxic drugs.

Statistical analysis of the data showed that 69% of the deaths included individuals between the ages of 30 and 59 years, while 74% were male, and these figures are consistent with data collected in 2022.

Currently, unregulated drug toxicity has been identified as the leading cause of death in the province for people aged 10 to 59 years, contributing to more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents, and natural disease combined.

Furthermore, 57% of deaths have occurred in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health authorities as Vancouver, Surrey and Greater Victoria are experiencing the highest number of toxic drug fatalities.

“As coroners, we speak every day to families who are grieving the loss of a loved one,” said Dr. Lapointe. “Our agency continues to recommend rapid expansion of a safer drug supply throughout the province to reduce the significant harms associated with the toxic illicit drug market and prevent future deaths.”

In 2021, B.C. was the first Canadian province to introduce a safer supply program, with the first phase of the policy expected to take between 18 to 24 months. Then, in January, the province also decriminalized the possession of small amounts of certain drugs such as heroin, fentanyl and cocaine as part of a three-year pilot program.

Meanwhile, Delta Police Chief Neil Dubord has pointed out that the number of deaths occurring in the province in the first five months of 2023 is very similar to the figures recorded over the same period in 2022.

“The success of B.C.’s decriminalization pilot hinges on a comprehensive system-wide approach, encompassing sustainable funding, evidence-based addiction treatment with prompt accessibility, concurrent mental health crisis intervention and support, and of course, leadership,” Chief Neil Dubord of Delta Police Department said his open letter criticizing B.C.’s “ineffective” decriminalization policies.