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6 unregulated drug deaths per day in June: B.C. coroner

Coroner: This health emergency is not confined to one neighbourhood or one demographic
“Illicit fentanyl continues to drive the crisis, which is causing deaths in large and small municipalities, towns and cities across the province,” says chief coroner Lisa Lapointe. Photo: Colin Davis on Unsplash

Data released by the BC Coroners Service last week continues to reflect the significant risks associated with the illicit drug market, with more than 1,200 deaths attributed to toxic drugs in the first six months of this year.

“British Columbia is continuing to lose community members at record rates as a result of the toxicity of the unregulated drug market ,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, and a July 19 statement. “Illicit fentanyl continues to drive the crisis, which is causing deaths in large and small municipalities, towns and cities across the province.”

This health emergency is not confined to one neighbourhood or one demographic, she said.

“Anyone accessing an illicit substance is at risk of serious harm or death.”

According to coroner statistics for the first six months of 2023, the Trail Local Health Area has two deaths from illicit drug use on record.

As has been the case for more than a decade, illicit fentanyl continues to be the primary driver in unregulated drug deaths. Fentanyl and/or a fentanyl analogue was present in more than 90 per cent of expedited toxicological testing in June, while nearly three-quarters of tests indicated the presence of a stimulant.

Almost all unregulated drug deaths are the result of mixed drug toxicity.

Consistent with historical trends, more than 80 per cent of reported deaths in 2023 have occurred indoors, with nearly half taking place in a private residence.

Smoking continues to be the predominant mode of consumption in suspected unregulated drug deaths, with nearly seven out of every 10 investigations indicating that the decedent smoked their substances.

Unregulated drug toxicity is the leading cause of death in British Columbia for persons aged 10 to 59, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural disease combined.

The lives of at least 12,509 British Columbians have been lost to unregulated drugs since the public health emergency was first declared in April 2016.

“As coroners, we speak every day to families who are grieving the loss of a loved one,” Lapointe said. “Our agency continues to recommend rapid expansion of a safer drug supply throughout the province to reduce the significant harms associated with the toxic illicit drug market and prevent future deaths.”

Key preliminary findings:

* The number of unregulated drug deaths in June equates to about 6.1 deaths per day.

* In 2023, 70 per cent of those dying were aged 30 to 59, and 77 per cent were male.

* The townships experiencing the highest number of unregulated drug deaths in 2023 are Vancouver, Surrey, and Greater Victoria.

* By health authority, the highest number of unregulated drug deaths are in Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health authorities (363 and 338 deaths, respectively), making up 57 per cent of all such deaths during 2023.

* The highest rates of death in 2023 are in Northern Health (60 deaths per 100,000 individuals) and Vancouver Coastal Health (57 per 100,000). Overall, the rate of death in B.C. is 45 deaths per 100,000 individuals.

* By health service delivery area, the highest rates of death in 2023 are in Vancouver, Northwest, Northern Interior, Central Vancouver Island and North Vancouver Island.

* By local health area, the highest rates in 2023 are in Vancouver - Centre North, Terrace, Greater Campbell River, Princeton and Greater Nanaimo.

* In 2023, 47 per cent of unregulated drug deaths occurred in private residences and 34 per cent in other inside residences including social and supportive housing, shelters and hotels; and 18 per cent occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets, and parks.

* Smoking is the most common mode of consumption in 2023 with 67 per cent showing evidence of smoking followed by injection (16 per cent), nasal insufflation (13 per cent) and oral (five per cent).

The province has committed $1 billion over the next three years to B.C.’s response to the toxic drug crisis.

A recent action is drug-checking services. There are a number of drug-checking services throughout the province — 35 within Interior Health — to help people learn what is detected in the substances they are taking to reduce the risk of drug poisoning and connect them to supportive services.

B.C. is also expanding access to overdose prevention services that offer observed inhalation services in communities hardest hit by the drug-poisoning crisis. The province says from January 2017 until the end of May 2023, there were more than four million visits to overdose-prevention services and supervised consumption sites; 25,530 overdoses responded to and survived, and one death.

The province has also funded take-home naloxone kits. As of May 2023, more than 1.87 million kits have been shipped and 150,205 have been reported as used to reverse a drug poisoning. The kits are available at more than 2,197 locations, including 835 community pharmacies in B.C.

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Sheri Regnier

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