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B.C.’s toxic drug crisis: May death toll marks downward trend

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For the first time this year, the number of unregulated drug deaths recorded monthly in British Columbia has dipped below 180.

The latest data from the BC Coroners Service shows 176 people died of toxic drug overdose in May, representing a 16 per cent annual decrease and a 19 per cent monthly decrease.

According to the report, which was released Monday, there were approximately 5.7 drug-related deaths each day of May 2023.

The previous month, there were 6.9 daily deaths recorded.

B.C.’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe says she’s cautiously optimistic that this decrease signals the beginning of a trend.

“I’m always hopeful, but one month is small and we’ll keep our eyes on it as it progresses,” she told CTV News on Monday.

Some of the factors Lapointe believes may have contributed to the decrease of deaths in May include safe consumption sites, overdose prevention sites and the introduction of safer supply in some communities of the province.

In addition, she believes awareness campaigns related to the toxic drug supply may be working, slowly but surely.

“We’ve been letting people know every month how unsafe the drug supply is and asking people to ensure they use with somebody else if they are going to use—someone who can help if they get into trouble,” Lapointe said.

WHAT IS CAUSING THE DEATHS?

According to BCCS, a total of 990 deaths have been linked to the overdose crisis in the first five months of 2023, and fentanyl has been connected to 85 per cent of those fatalities.

“This is a fentanyl crisis,” Lapointe said.

While B.C. became the first province to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs for personal possession in January, Lapointe says that measure won’t stop people from dying from toxic drugs.

“As long as the illicit market is the only choice for people, then even if it’s decriminalized—that is still a poison drug,” she said. “People think they’re buying cocaine, and it may be laced with fentanyl or benzodiazepines or any one of many other substances that can cause serious harm.”

Fentanyl and its analogues were connected to 87 per cent of fatalities in May alone, however the summary shows a drop in the number of benzodiazepine-related deaths.

Last month, that drug was detected in 26 per cent of deaths, while in April, benzodiazepine was prevalent in 43.5 per cent.

“Whether more people are accessing safe locations to use drugs because of decriminalization, or whether the market itself has less benzodiazepines in it, we don’t really know. That’s one of the challenges with the system that we have—that the black market is chaotic and ever-changing,” said Lapointe.

The coroners service has found no evidence that a prescribed safe supply is contributing to the toll.

Intentional drug toxicity deaths, as well as unintentional ones linked to prescription medications, is not included the BCCS’s report.

WHERE ARE PEOPLE DYING?

Vancouver Coastal Health, the health authority with the most deaths recorded and the highest fatality rate for 2023, recorded 51 deaths last month.

That’s 17 fewer than in April 2023, and the lowest number since November 2022, when 43 toxic drug deaths were recorded.

Vancouver, however, is the city where the most drug-related deaths have occurred so far this year—representing 28 per cent of the toll.

The health authority with the next highest rate is Fraser Healthy, where 281 of deaths recorded in 2023 have happened.

That’s only slightly lower than the 313 recorded in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

While that health authority has the highest death rate at 59 deaths per 100,000 people, Northern Health is close behind with 58.

Most people, 81 per cent, are dying inside, with close to half of deaths occurring in private residences.

Only one death has occurred at an overdose prevention site.

WHO IS DYING?

The majority of deaths recorded so far this year—990 in total—have been among men aged 30 to 59.

The data shows 77 per cent of the drug-related deaths that have been recorded this year were among men, a trend that has remained steady since 2013.

At least 12,222 people have died as a result of the toxic drug crisis since the province declared it a public health emergency in 2016.

“Those deaths are across all walks of life, all areas of our province,” Lapointe said. “We don’t want more people to die, we have lost too many loved people who will be missed greatly across the province.”

She says the BCCS will continue reporting, month after month, so that people are aware of the public health emergency, as well as programs in place to support those in need.

One of her hopes is to reduce the stigmatizing, divisive language that she believes is partially responsible for creating this crisis.

“Hundreds of thousands of people use drugs in our province. That’s a fact of life. As long as they’re accessing the illicit drug supply, which is a profit-driven market, they are at risk,” said Lapointe.

“They are people experiencing a health challenge, often related to pain—whether it’s physical or emotional. We just want to develop an understanding that there needs to be a range or services for this really serious health crisis that our province has been experiencing for the past seven, going on eight years.”

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