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January illicit drug deaths double in Interior Health region

Image Credit: ADOBE STOCK
March 02, 2021 - 11:33 AM

Illicit drug overdose deaths within the Interior Health region are double what they were a year ago.

Last month there were 23 illicit drug deaths within the Interior Health region, compared to 10 deaths in January 2020.

While the B.C. Coroners Service report doesn’t specify all the areas where drug deaths occurred, they listed “top townships of injury,” which included Kelowna with four fatalities, Kamloops with one and Vernon with four.
For all of 2020 there were 62 illicit drug deaths in Kelowna, 60 in Kamloops and 26 in Vernon. The coroner's service did not provide numbers for Penticton.

The deadly upward trajectory of the overdose crisis is being mirrored across the province.

The coroner's service issued a statement today, March 2, saying provincewide there were 165 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in January 2021, and that’s the largest ever number of lives lost due to illicit drugs in the first month of a calendar year.

"These figures are heartbreaking, both in scale and for the number of families who are grieving the loss of a loved one," Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, B.C. Coroners Service said in a press release. "In the fifth year of this public health emergency, there is virtually no community in the province that hasn't been touched by this devastating loss of life."

An average of 5.3 lives were lost each day in January due to the toxic drug supply in B.C., a death rate of 38.1 per 100,000 residents. January is also the 10th consecutive month in which more than 100 deaths were attributed to suspected illicit drug toxicity.

Almost one in five of the suspected deaths (18%) in January noted extreme levels of fentanyl concentrations (greater than 50 micrograms/litre), the largest number recorded to date. Additionally, there were 14 deaths in which carfentanil, a more lethal analogue of fentanyl, was detected, an increase from the December total of nine and the largest monthly figure since May 2019.

The report also notes recent increases in the presence of unprescribed benzodiazepines and its analogues, including etizolam. Since July 2020, etizolam has been identified in 31% of illicit drug toxicity deaths where expedited testing was performed. In January, benzodiazepines and its analogues were detected in nearly half (49%) of all samples tested. The addition of etizolam to fentanyl increases the likelihood of overdose due to the combined respiratory depressant effects. Etizolam is not licensed in Canada.

In response to these record-high numbers, Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said she is committed to finding new ways to support and separate people from the poisoned drug supply, and is pushing for decriminalization.

"Addressing mental health and addictions is a priority of the B.C. government, and we are resolved to continue our work to add more treatment and recovery options, more services and supports for communities throughout B.C., and to work with the federal government to move forward on decriminalization," Malcolmson said. 

"At the same time, we are going to continue building the culturally safe, evidence-based system of mental health and addictions care that people deserve."

To contact a reporter for this story, email Kathy Michaels or call 250-718-0428 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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