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B.C. on track to lose more than 2,000 people to illicit drug poisonings this year

There were 159 illicit drug deaths in June

Every minute counts.

BC EHS paramedic have mere minutes to inject naloxone into the bloodstream of someone suffering an overdose before their heart stops.

A total of 1,011 British Columbians have died as a result of the province’s illicit drug crisis in the first six months of 2021 – a grim record in the province’s ongoing battle with a toxic drug supply.

Illicit versions of fentanyl and carfentanil, the two drugs wreaking havoc in British Columbia, have accounted for 87 per cent of those deaths.

In an update on Overdose Awareness Day (Aug. 31), the BC Coroners Service announced that 159 people fatally overdosed in June alone, making the ninth consecutive month when more than 150 died.

In a news conference, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe reiterated that the ongoing pandemic has fuelled an increase in the toxicity of B.C.’s illicit drug supply. Paired with social distancing measures that have driven many to use alone, 82 per cent of overdoses so far this year have been in private or other indoor residences.

Brian Twaites, advanced care paramedic and paramedic specialist, told reporters that paramedics have been responding to an exponential increase of overdose calls this year, with no apparent end in sight.

ALSO READ: B.C. paramedics respond to record ODs in 24-hour period for 2nd month in a row

“People often ask me what we can do to stop this crisis, and I don’t know what the answer is. The only advice I can give is if you are using recreational drugs, please, please do not use it alone.” Twaites said.

When asked what needs to be done to “actually effect change,” Lapointe said there needs to be meaningful coordination between all levels of government to provide a safe supply of clean drugs for those struggling with addiction. Attitudes need to change, too, in order to remove the stigma of providing harm reduction measures and easily accessible treatment.

“I think it’s very clear that B.C. needs a safe supply,” Lapointe said. Projections for 2021 estimate there may be as many as 2,000 or more deaths by the end of the year.

Since 2016, when former provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared overdose fatalities the province’s first-ever public health emergency, a total of 7,760 lives have been lost.

Overdoses in B.C. are on track to be the second most common cause of deaths in the province with malignant cancers being the first.

Forty-four years old is the average age for someone to die from an illicit drug poisoning. Roughly 80 per cent of fatalities have been men.

“This is someone’s best friend, a mother, a father, someone’s brother or sister and most tragically someone’s child,” Twaites said.

The latest cases come as a federal election is underway, with many advocates looking closely at how party leaders plan to address substance use disorder, mental health and social housing.

Long-time Moms Stop the Harm advocate Leslie McBain, who lost her son to a toxic drug poisoning in 2014, called on the government to put in place measures that could stop further overdose deaths.

“Why, when we are characterized as a socially conscious province and country, would we allow this to happen?,” she said.

“How many people must die before all levels of government have the courage to say enough is enough?”

Neither provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix nor Mental Health Minister Sheila Malcolmson were present at Tuesday’s briefing.

In an interview, Malcolmson said the effort against overdoses lost ground during the pandemic, but more lives would have been lost if there hadn’t been more spending on addiction programs.

“I appreciate none of this is any comfort to someone who has lost a loved one, and that so many people continue to die from the toxic drug crisis shows we need to do more,” she said in an interview. “We’re working on doing that every day. It’s not from a lack of political will.”

– with a file from The Canadian Press


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