More than 14,500 people killed by toxic drugs in B.C. since 2016: coroner

The BC Coroners Service says at least 182 people in B.C. were killed by unregulated toxic drugs in April, bringing the overall number of deaths since the beginning of the public health crisis in 2016 to over 14,500.

In an update Thursday, the coroners service said while the deaths in April show a 24 per cent decrease from the number of deaths in April 2023, when 239 people died, “the risk posed by unregulated drug supply remains very high.”

“April 2024 mark[ed] eight years since the public-health emergency was first declared. At least 14,582 people in the province have lost their lives to toxic drugs in that time, including 763 in the first four months of 2024. Unregulated drug toxicity is the leading cause of death for people in British Columbia age 10 to 59, and accounts for more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural disease combined,” the BCCS said.

The coroner explains fentanyl continues to be the main driver of toxic drug deaths in 2024, “detected in 82% of toxicological test results.”

“Coroner investigations confirm that substances were consumed through smoking in nearly three-quarters of the deaths in April,” the service said.

In its finding, the BCCS says the death rate for females has almost doubled since 2020, from approximately 13 per cent to 23 per cent in 2024.

The Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health authorities account for the majority of deaths, according to the coroner, with nearly 60 per cent of toxic drug deaths happening in those regions.

“Vancouver, Surrey and Greater Victoria experienced the most loss of life in April from unregulated toxic drugs, followed closely by Prince George and Nanaimo.”

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside shared Thursday that the 182 deaths are “more than just a number as each person was irreplaceable to their families, friends, coworkers and neighbours.”

“Each of these lives matters. There are not enough words to bring comfort to those who are grieving and to everyone in every corner of our province and across the country who has experienced a preventable loss of a loved one due to toxic drugs,” she said.

April decline ‘nothing to write home about’: expert

Although the decrease in suspected toxic drug deaths is generally considered a positive sign, harm reduction recovery expert, Guy Felicella cautioned against excessive optimism.

“I’m taking the latest figures with a grain of salt, and a lot of caution behind it as well,” Felicella told CityNews.

“It always worries me that even though you see a decrease, just with the unregulated toxic drug supply, it fluctuates. Relying on that supply is what scares me the most,” he said.

“You just never know what next month is going to look like, or the month after, or how the drug market’s changing, because you just don’t have control over it.”

Felicella believes the decrease is likely due to a combination of factors, including the use of supervised consumption sites and limited access to prescribed safer supply in B.C.

“It’s crucial that we expand those things, such as harm reduction, and access to services, so that people can continue accessing them,” he emphasized.

“Unfortunately, across British Columbia, there are many places that lack access to those services, like supervised consumption sites.”

According to Health Canada data, there are currently nine legal supervised consumption sites in B.C.

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