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Number of British Columbians lost to toxic drugs in 2023 surpasses 2,000

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At least 2,039 British Columbians have lost their lives to toxic drugs so far in 2023, according to the latest data release from the BC Coroners Service—marking the third year in a row more than 2,000 people have died from the province's ongoing overdose crisis.

The monthly report released Thursday says there were 189 drug fatalities in October—or approximately 6.1 deaths per day. October was also the 37th consecutive month more than 150 people have died from suspected drug toxicity.

Troylana Manson, an advocate with Moms Stop the Harm, lost her son Aaron due to an overdose from the toxic supply.

She said she's urging politicians to provide a regulated, safe supply of drugs for everyone to access.

“This toxicity is getting worse and it’s going to continue to get worse,” she said. 

The unabated death rate is also taking a toll on first responders. Vancouver Fire Rescue Services wrote on social media Thursday that firefighters have already surpassed record overdose response calls this year. As of Nov. 27, the fire department said it has responded to 8,128 overdoses, compared to 7,767 in all of 2021—the previous record high for overdose calls.

The October deaths represent a nine-per-cent decrease from October of last year, and a seven-per-cent increase compared to September.

The most deadly month of 2023 to date—in fact, the deadliest month since 2013, the earliest year for which data is available—was April, when there were 234 drug fatalities recorded.

In October, fentanyl and its analogues were detected in 91 per cent of expedited toxicology tests. Smoking continued to be the most common mode of consumption, at 65 per cent, with injection in a distant second place at 17 per cent.

WHO IS DYING?

According to the coroners service, drug toxicity is the leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 59 in B.C.—higher than homicides, suicides, accidents and "natural disease" combined.

In October, 72 per cent of fatalities were among males, a figure that has remained relatively stable as long as overdose deaths data has been available.

Seventy per cent of those who died were between the ages of 30 and 59, another fairly consistent statistic.

Three youth aged 18 or under died in October. The highest number of fatalities in that age group was recorded in March, when five died.

WHERE ARE PEOPLE DYING?

The coroners service said the highest number of deaths continue to happen in urban centres such as Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.

In October, Fraser Health saw the largest number of fatalities with 63, followed by Vancouver Coastal Health at 57.

In Surrey, groups like Students Overcoming Substance Use Disorder and Addictions, or SOUDA, are trying to address the crisis in a culturally sensitive and relevant way. Founder and co-director Gurkirat Nijjar, said the volunteer-run organization provides harm reduction resources and education to Surrey’s South Asian community to bridge the gap between health-care providers and the public.

“It’s not about moral panic,” Nijjar said. “It’s about the reality on the ground that people are dying due to a lack of resources and help so we have to be more empathetic towards people who use substances.”

When looking at the death rate, Vancouver Coastal had the highest in October at 4.5 per 100,000 residents, followed by Northern Health at 4.2 per 100,000. Zooming out to 2023 as a whole, Northern Health has had the highest death rate at 61.4 per 100,000.

This year, 80 per cent of unregulated drug deaths have occurred indoors—48 per cent in private residences and 32 per cent in “other residences,” including SROs and shelters—and 19 per cent happened outside, in locations like vehicles and parks. 

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