B.C.’s toxic drug crisis ‘demands an urgent response’, say frontliners

With more than 2,000 lives lost to toxic illicit drugs in B.C. last year, the province’s chief coroner and doctors on the front line are asking why there isn’t more urgency to address the situation.

According to the latest figures from the BC Coroners Service, there were 2,272 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2022. That amounts to just over six lives lost every day.

“I desperately, desperately don’t want to be back here next year,” Dr. Paxton Bach, co-medical director, British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, said Tuesday at a news conference about death totals.

His message was echoed by other officials, who question why more isn’t being done.

“How do we stop ourselves from feeling that this is now the status quo and start viewing it as a real public health emergency?” asked Dr. Nel Wieman, acting chief medical officer, First Nations Health Authority.

Comparing the drug epidemic to another public health emergency we’re still recovering from — COVID-19 — Wieman says more First Nations members have been lost to the former than the virus. While she’s not asking why the pandemic got so much attention and response, she wonders why the “toxic drug crisis public health emergency receive less.”

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She says the deaths in First Nations communities have “left empty spaces in families, homes, workplaces, and ceremonial, and cultural places.”

“So many years of lives lost. In about three years, we have changed the course of a global pandemic, to the point where many of us are living some semblance of our lives in normalcy pre-pandemic, and yet the toxic drug crisis continues unabated,” Wieman said.

“The public messaging during COVID has been we’re all in this together. But I asked, what are people saying to themselves about the toxic drug poisoning crisis? I’m glad it’s you and not me. Not in my backyard. This doesn’t affect me or my family. The reality is that British Columbians, including First Nations people, have died of toxic drug poisonings all over our province.”

Bach, who works out of St. Paul’s Hospital, says the numbers only show a fraction of the devastation.

“For every one of these deaths we see here today, there are 10 more individuals who are experiencing non-fatal overdoses, infections, or many other consequences due to the toxic drug supply,” he explained.

He adds people are often waiting weeks for detox and months for treatment centre spots.

“It demands an urgent response that’s commensurate with the scale of damage that we’re seeing,” Bach said.

Meanwhile, Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner, says the overall provincial response continues to lack in tracking who is getting what treatment, and in evaluation of the programs in place.

The latest illicit drug death numbers for 2022 were released the same day B.C. began its decriminalization pilot project.

While the province has listed a number of steps it’s taken, including funding supports for mental health and addictions, many point to the records B.C. keeps setting, wondering why so many lives continue to be lost.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside was asked Tuesday whether she believes the provincial government is making progress on the public health emergency.

“There’s no question that the numbers are distressing. The consequences of the toxic drug poisoning crisis are tragic for families and communities, and all of the work we have done, we need to continue to do and more,” she said, pointing to recent announcements of additional supports and beds as examples of B.C.’s harm-reduction work.

“We know that the steps that we took in 2017 and 2018 had an impact, we saw that reflected in the numbers in 2019. That is the ground that we lost over the course of the COVID pandemic that we are working to regain,” she continued.

“If substance-use disorder and if the toxic drug supply were the kind of crisis that we could have a vaccine campaign for to manage, that would be one thing. But I think we all understand and agree that the causes of this crisis are more complex.”

According to the BC Coroners Service, there were 987 illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019. That number jumped to 1,774 in 2020, and 2,306 in 2021.

The number of deaths related to the drug crisis in 2018 was 1,562.

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