Nearly 1,000 people died as a result of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. last year, the fourth since a provincial health emergency was declared in 2016.
The figures released by the BC Coroners Service Monday were down in 2019, at 981 deaths compared to 1,542 in 2018.
However, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the fatal overdose numbers in 2019 were similar in number to 2016, the year the crisis began. The crisis has killed more than 5,000 people since 2016, the majority of them men. In 2019, 747 men died compared to 234 women.
“One thing those people had in common was that they were people,” Lapointe said. “They were loved. They had hopes and dreams and challenges.”
A 42-year-old woman, with mental health issues, “was found deceased in the living room of her home by her child,” Lapointe said. Toxicology tests found fentanyl and amphetamine in her system.
A 35-year old man was found dead in his home by a family member when he didn’t show up for work on Monday. The man had a history of anxiety and substance use disorder.
“He is survived by one child and a large, loving family,” she said.
The majority of those who died were men between the ages of 30 and 50. Vancouver, Surrey, Victoria and Abbotsford had the highest rates of fatal drug overdoses in 2019. Those cities have topped the list since the public health emergency was declared in 2016.
The number of deaths involving fentanyl dropped slightly to 84 per cent, from 87 per cent in 2018.
First responders were called out to 24,000 overdose calls in 2019, Lance Stephenson, director of patient care delivery with BC Emergency Health Services, said Monday.
Dr. Perry Kendall, co-interim executive director at the BC Centre on Substance Use, said that number, compared to 981 deaths, did mean that measures like supervised consumption sites and increased Naloxone training were helping.
However, he said decriminalizing drugs should be the next step in curtailing the overdose crisis.
“We are still in the midst of a public health emergency… in no world is losing nearly 3 British Columbians every day an acceptable outcome,” he said. A “prescribed pharmaceuticals supply,” as seen in other European countries, could be a first step.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said conversations about decriminalizing drugs are continuing,
“We don’t abandon an idea because it’s not immediately accepted,” she said.
The key, she said, was to separate the shame from substance use and dependence.
“It’s that stigma and fear of being put into jail for that health issue,” Henry said.
But even people who reach out for help hit pitfalls. Henry said the people who get through detox and then graduate to recovery are left in limbo, as waiting lists for facilities remain miles-long and evidence-based care remains scarce.