'Russian roulette:' Failed policies created 136 per cent increase in overdose deaths in B.C. | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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'Russian roulette:' Failed policies created 136 per cent increase in overdose deaths in B.C.

Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/BC Livestream
August 25, 2020 - 10:19 AM

Overdose deaths in B.C. are rising at an alarming rate, prompting health officials to reissue the call for a safe drug supply.

In a press conference today, Aug. 25, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said there were 175 illicit drug deaths across the province this July, representing a 136 per cent increase over the number of deaths seen in July 2019.

The July figures raise the yearly total of drug deaths to 909.

"The number of people dying in B.C., due to an unsafe drug supply continues to surpass deaths due to homicides, motor vehicle accidents, suicides and COVID-19 combined, and continues to take a tragic toll on people from all walks of life and in all communities of the province," LaPointe said. "Since 2016, we have seen almost 6,000 deaths related to... the illicit drug crisis in B.C."

B.C.'s top doctor Bonnie Henry said it's dismaying to know that all of the work done around responding to COVID-19 has been a contributing factor to the number of deaths being seen.

"We know the toxicity of the drug supply is extreme," she said. "And we see that in the results from the Coroner's Service. I implore anybody who is using drugs right now; do not do it alone."

Dr. Henry said having access to a safer supply from the toxic drugs through some form of decriminalization and reducing some of the shame and stigma needs to be prioritized going forward.

While she touched on societal measures that would make a difference, Guy Felicella with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use didn't mince words.

"Overdoses are up, overdose deaths are up, homelessness is up, poverty is up," Felicella said. "None of these are new problems. And this crisis has been years, decades even, in the making. No single politician or political party owns this. In fact, every level of government past and present, owns this because the one thing that they share has been a collective lack of bold action or clear plan to prevent the crisis from happening in the first place. And we need to end this crisis now."

Felicella said for those who use drugs or those who are struggling with addiction, policy change needs to happen immediately.

"The absence of a policy to support access to a legally regulated safer supply is killing people every hour, every day," he said. "Our failed policies are forcing people to play Russian roulette, only the odds are growing against them. It's not just a single bullet in the chamber. It's a full chamber and our bad policies are holding the gun."

Today's report, he said, makes it abundantly clear that the toxic poisoned drug supply that started this crisis over four years ago has become even more dangerous and more deadly.

"If we are to stop people from dying we have to start by addressing the drug supply," he said. "The government needs to go further by offering a safe regulated supply of substances that people need — a safer supply would mean pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply that would include heroin, injected hydromorphone, and possibly even powdered fentanyl. And we would consider how people use their drugs, whether it's by ingestion or inhalation."

He said doctors holding the keys isn't a method that's working.

The number of deaths in each health authority is at or near the highest monthly totals ever recorded.

The number of non-fatal overdose incidents is also increasing, with a record high of more than 2,700 calls reported by B.C. Emergency Health Services in July.

The B.C. Coroners Service has detected a sustained increase of illicit drug toxicity deaths since March, and the province has now recorded five consecutive months with over 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths.

From 2016 to 2019, the top four detected drugs related to illicit drug toxicity deaths were fentanyl (83 per cent), cocaine (50 per cent), methamphetamine/amphetamine (34 per cent) and heroin (15 per cent).

Between April 2020 and July 2020, more than one-third, or 35 per cent, of illicit drug toxicity deaths involved people 50 years of age or older, compared to 26 between January 2020 and March 2020. In 2018 and 2019, 31 per cent of people who died were 50 or older.

In 2020, 85 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths occurred inside homes and 14 per cent occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets, parks, etc.

In 2020, the highest rates were in Vancouver Coastal and Northern health authorities (35 deaths per 100,000 individuals). Overall, the rate in B.C. is 31 deaths per 100,000 individuals in 2020, similar to rates in 2017 and 2018.

By health services delivery area in 2020, South Vancouver Island, Vancouver and Thompson Cariboo Shuswap have experienced the largest increase in the monthly average of illicit drug toxicity deaths between April and July 2020, compared to the period between January and March 2020.

By local health area in 2018 to 2020, the highest rates of illicit drug toxicity deaths were in Hope, Lillooet, Vancouver, Grand Forks and Peace River North.

As reported on July 6 by the First Nations Health Authority, the toll of the illicit drug toxicity crisis on First Nations in B.C. was rising again in 2020, with a 93 per cent increase in deaths among First Nations people in B.C. from January to May of this year, representing 89 deaths of First Nations individuals.

First Nations people represent 3.4 per cent of the province's population, yet have accounted for 16 per cent of all illicit drug deaths in B.C. from January to May 2020, a rate of more than five times higher than other B.C. residents.

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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