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2,511 people died from toxic drugs in B.C. last year, coroner says

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Toxic drugs in B.C. killed more people than ever before in 2023 – with 2,511 deaths reported.

"More people than ever are dying -- nearly seven people every day in 2023. Each day, coroners across B.C. go into communities and retrieve the bodies of the dead," chief coroner Lisa LaPointe said at a Wednesday news conference.

The update is the first in nearly three months and preliminary data shows that 220 people died in November and 219 died in December of last year. The death toll for 2023 represents a five per cent increase from 2022, when 2,383 people died.

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

She also decried the "politicization" of B.C.'s attempts to respond to the crisis by decriminalizing drug possession and facilitating some people's access to prescribed opioids.

"We are talking about human beings. We are talking about people's lives, and using this issue for political fodder is extremely disappointing," LaPoionte said.

She stressed that people are dying from a volatile, poisoned supply of illicit drugs and not as a result of decriminalization, safer supply or any other harm reduction measures.

This is happening in a context where more 200,000 people in the province use drugs, LaPointe noted.

"Given the unpredictability of unregulated drugs, each of these 225,000 individuals is at risk of death," she 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.

In a statement issued Wednesday after the latest data was released, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said her "commitment to ending this crisis is unwavering."

Nearly 14,000 people have died in the province since the crisis was declared a public-health emergency in 2016.

LaPointe – who has been on the forefront of the crisis – noted that Wednesday's news conference would be her last public appearance. She announced her retirement late last year, saying she will be stepping down when her term ends on Feb. 18, 2024.

"It deeply saddens me that we have been unable to influence the essential change necessary to reduce the tragic impacts of toxic drugs on so many thousands of our family members, friends and colleagues across the province," she said when announcing her departure.

LaPointe said that she fears that unless the province takes bold, significant action – instead of " making announcements that don't actually make a material difference in people's lives" – 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.

"The 2,500 families that lost someone this year had no idea last year that they would be amongst these statistics. And there's potentially 2,500 families at home right now that have no idea that next year this will impact them," she said.

"What we hear from people who have lost their children – the most common sentiment I hear – is I hope they didn't die in vain, I hope that something is done, I hope that somebody is listening, I hope that no other family has to go through what our family is experiencing." 

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