A devastating 1,716 British Columbians died from illicit drug overdoses in 2020, marking the deadliest year of the ongoing crisis in the province’s history.
The latest statistics, released by the BC Coroner Service on Thursday (Feb. 11), equates to roughly five fatal overdoses a day.
“The impacts of COVID-19 highlighted the immensely precarious situation of those experiencing problematic substance use in our province,” chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said during a news conference.
“It’s clear that urgent change is needed to prevent future deaths and the resulting grief and loss so many families and communities have experienced across our province.”
With the backdrop of a global pandemic, advocates have voiced concern that social restrictions and fear of transmission has worsened the mental health of many, as well as cause barriers to accessing resources and harm reduction.
It has also allowed for an increase in the toxicity of street-level drugs.
In mid-January, BC Emergency Health Services announced that paramedics responded to a record-breaking number of overdose calls – up 12 per cent from 2019 and averaging out to 75 calls each day. Most notable, smaller communities saw the larges spikes in calls, highlighting the rural reach of the drug trade.
Vancouver, Victoria and Surrey have seen the lion’s share of deaths since at least 2016, when former provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared B.C.’s first ever health emergency in response to a spike in overdoses – fuelled by the emergence of illicit forms of the powerful opioid fentanyl.
Since then, the province has rolled out a number of harm reduction tools, such as awareness campaigns to not use alone, free access to naloxone kits and training and free fentanyl test strips.
Since 2016 not a single overdose death has been reported at an overdose prevention site or safe consumption facility.
Meanwhile, a chorus of experts and leaders have called for the federal government to decriminalize hard drugs and roll out a safe supply – including Lapointe, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, former addictions minister Judy Darcy and B.C. Centre on Substance Use head Dr. Evan Wood.
In 2019, the association that represents police chiefs across Canada also called for decriminalization of simple possession. Premier John Horgan has also wrote letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, requesting Health Canada to approve and allow the province power to take necessary steps.
So far, Trudeau has not entertained the idea on a national level.
Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, said Thursday the province wants to see a national approach to decriminalization, but failing that, she has asked federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu to consider a provincial exemption that would allow small amounts of drug posession for personal use.
Decriminalization is a vital step toward saving lives because it helps reduce stigma as a barrier for treatment, she said.
“Whether it’s Canada-wide or in B.C., it is in the federal government’s power to act,” she said at a news conference Thursday.
Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.