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B.C.’s toxic drug crisis is getting worse

Moira Wyton
A injection kit is seen inside the newly opened Fraser Health supervised consumption site is pictured in Surrey, B.C., Tuesday, June 6, 2017. The number of overdose deaths in B.C. is steadily increasing. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press file)

Moira Wyton

Local Journalism Initiative

The Tyee

Toxic drugs took the lives of at least 333 British Columbians in August and September, with 2021 on track to be the province’s worst year for drug deaths.

At least 181 people died in August and 152 in September, the most deaths ever recorded in each calendar month.

In the first nine months of 2021, 1,534 people have died — 24 per cent more than in the same period last year — as the province slowly rolls out safe supply and decriminalization efforts to stop deaths.

The BC Coroners Service reported deaths for both months today. Reporting has been delayed because the service said it was dealing with the nearly 600 deaths related to the heat wave that began in June.

In 2020, 1,736 people died of toxic drugs. At the current rate of about 5.5 deaths per day, B.C. will surpass 2,000 deaths by the end of the calendar year.

Increasingly unpredictable and deadly combinations of substances in the criminalized supply during the pandemic, combined with reduced access to harm reduction services, have meant toxic drug deaths have skyrocketed since March 2020.

The powerful opioid fentanyl, up to 50 times as potent as heroin, is present in about 84 per cent of deaths, the report said.

And carfentanil, even more potent than fentanyl, has contributed to 137 deaths so far in 2021, more than twice the 65 deaths it caused in all of 2020.

Drug user advocates and doctors have repeatedly called for safe supply programs, including non-medical compassion club models, to stop deaths by providing uncontaminated drugs.

“If we had a contaminated food supply that was making people ill, we would pull that supply off the market and replace it with a supply that was not contaminated,” said Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical officer Dr. Patricia Daly in an Oct. 21 presentation to Vancouver city council. “We haven’t done the most basic thing to address this crisis.”

Daly noted the unequal responses to COVID-19 and the more deadly toxic drug crisis.

COVID-19 has taken the lives of 2,200 individuals in B.C. since March 2020, compared to more than 3,100 people who died of toxic drugs in the same period.

This month’s rate of 39 toxic drug deaths per 100,000 individuals places the crisis just slightly behind COVID-19 in terms of mortality, which has killed about 41 individuals per 100,000 overall.

And B.C.’s death rate of 39 per 100,000 people is higher than overdose-ravaged states like Ohio (38.3), Maryland (38.2) or Pennsylvania (35.6) — but not quite as dire as Delaware (48) or West Virginia (52.8).

B.C.’s recent submission requesting permission to decriminalize personal possession of small amounts of drugs is now in the federal government’s hands, along with Vancouver’s earlier request to do the same.

It’s a move provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry supported in 2019, but which was dismissed by the NDP government at the time.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson today acknowledged the “heartbreaking” deaths and said the province was leading the way on efforts to reduce deaths through prescription alternatives to street drugs and decriminalization.

“But people who use drugs continue to die, so clearly we must do more,” she said during an announcement of 10 new treatment beds for substance use in Surrey and new social workers for substance use at two hospitals in Fraser Health.

While Malcolmson has said non-prescription, compassion club means of distributing untainted, regulated safe supplies of criminalized street drugs have a place in B.C.’s toxic drug response, she has not funded or spoken to next steps for getting these solutions off the ground. Only about 20 per cent of the approximately 100,000 people in B.C. who could benefit from safe supply are connected to a prescription alternative right now.

Drug user advocates have criticized the province’s decriminalization plan as ineffective, noting it excludes youth and still allows police to arrest people for possessing small amounts of drugs.

And without widespread access to a safe supply of substances, people will still die despite any decriminalization efforts, they say.

“If our drive towards decriminalization is truly propelled by public health with the intent to reduce harm, we need to be pushing forward policy that fits the actual needs of the people who use drugs. This is not that,” said Amber Streukens of the Rural Empowered Drug Users Network in a statement last week from Pivot Legal Society.