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198 people died from toxic drugs in B.C. in January: coroner's service

Moms Stop the Harm advocates and supporters gather at Centennial Square in Victoria on April 14, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito Moms Stop the Harm advocates and supporters gather at Centennial Square in Victoria on April 14, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
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Toxic drugs killed more than six people a day, on average, last month in British Columbia, according to data from the coroner's service released Thursday.

Officials said 198 deaths in January are suspected to have been caused by illicit drugs, working out to 6.4 lives lost each day. The total for the month is a 10 per cent decrease from the total recorded in December of 2023, and 14 per cent lower than the total for January of 2023.

"Unregulated drug toxicity is the leading cause of death in British Columbia for people aged 10 to 59, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents, and natural disease combined," the statement from the BC Coroners Service says, repeating what has become a familiar statistic.

More than three-quarters of the fatalities were among males and more than 70 per cent were among people between 30 and 59 years old, which the coroner's service notes "has been the case throughout the emergency."

While the highest number of deaths were recorded in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health authorities, the highest death rates were in the Northern and Island Health authorities.

Preliminary toxicology results showed that fentanyl and its analogues were detected in 85.8 per cent of deaths, while stimulants were present in 80 per cent. Smoking remains the most common "mode of consumption" for fatal amounts of toxic drugs, accounting for 69 per cent of cases.

Last year was the deadliest on record since a public health emergency was declared in 2016, with 2,511 deaths.

That grim statistic was shared by Lisa LaPointe in her last appearance as chief coroner last month. She said, at the time, she fears that unless the province takes bold, significant action the next chief coroner will be back at a podium at the end of 2024 announcing another record-breaking number of deaths that could have been prevented.

"We can take measures to save lives or we can continue to count the dead," LaPointe said

The single most significant thing the province could do to stem the tide of deaths is to immediately and exponentially expand the availability of a safe alternative to the illicit supply and to do so using a model that does not require a prescription, LaPointe said, reiterating the top recommendation made by an expert panel in November of last year.

The province has said it has no plans to heed that recommendation.

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