A new report from the BC Coroners Service, which has been investigating illicit drug-related deaths for four years, says an increasingly toxic supply in the province is causing increased deaths and that efforts to ban illicit drugs are only making the crisis worse.
The report entitled BC Coroners Service Death Review Panel: A review of illicit drug toxicity deathsreviewed 6,007 illicit drug toxicity deaths between August 1, 2017 and July 31, 2021. It calls on the province to develop a policy to ensure a safer supply of drugs and offer better health support with a plan that would take action within the next 90 days.
“Although a number of provincial initiatives have been taken to address the drug toxicity crisis, these initiatives have not been sufficient to halt the rising death toll,” the report said. “A new approach is needed, one that pays particular attention to the supply of toxic drugs.”
Illicit drug toxicity is the leading cause of unnatural deaths in BC, responsible for more deaths than homicides, suicides, traffic accidents, drownings and fire deaths combined, according to coroners.
BC declared a public health emergency in April 2016 when the powerful opioid fentanyl led to a spike in deaths. Since then, more than 8,800 people in BC have died from suspected fatal drug overdoses.
In 2021, there were 2,224 suspected overdose deaths in the province, a 26 percent increase from the previous year.
The new report found that the number and rate of overdose deaths related to illicit drugs are increasing, drug supply has become increasingly toxic, and the median age of deaths is trending younger. It is now at 42.
6 deaths per day
Currently, six people are dying every day in the province as a result of illicit drugs, the new report said.
Indigenous peoples are disproportionately represented in the deaths, and people living in poverty and with unstable housing or poor mental health are more vulnerable, it said.
The report makes several recommendations, including ensuring a safer supply of medicines and developing 30-, 60- and 90-day action plans by provincial ministries involved in the crisis to allow better monitoring of how and why deaths are occurring and provide plans to address them.
The report gave the government until May 9 to create safer supply policies in collaboration with the BC Center for Disease Control and the BC Center on Substance Use.
“We recognize that many of the timelines in the report are aggressive, but COVID-19 has shown how quickly policymakers can act when lives are at stake, and we know that every month of inaction means hundreds more lives lost.” , said the report’s authors, which include Michael Egilson, chairman of the death review panel.
The panel was appointed by the Chief Coroner and included professionals with expertise in public health, health services, drug use and addiction, medicine, mental health, indigenous health, education, income support, oversight and regulation, and policing.
“There is an urgent need for action”
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe has forwarded each of the panel’s recommendations to relevant departments and organizations.
“As we approach the sixth anniversary of the substance-related harm public health emergency, coordinated, urgent action is needed to reduce the devastation that illicit drugs have wreaked on so many in our province,” Lapointe said in a publication.
“This report from a panel of subject matter experts provides a roadmap. I sincerely hope their advice is heeded.”
A similar review released in 2018 recommended expanding treatment and recovery programs, expanding programs that offer prescription drugs to addicts, and more testing for illicit drugs.
The death toll began falling in 2019, but officials said it rose again during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more people were isolated in their homes and the supply of illicit drugs became more toxic.
Garth Mullins was a heroin user for more than a decade before entering a methadone program. He is now a drug users‘ advocate in Vancouver.
He says treatment programs are important but will not stem the majority of deaths that continue to occur.
“There’s a lot of talk about treatment and healthcare for individuals, but the truth is that half the people who have died from drugs are just like recreational users, as we’ve learned from the coroner,” he told CBC’s Stephen Quinn.
“The longer these politicians hold on to this mindset that ‘this is an addiction crisis, we need to get people off drugs, it’s about abstinence or whatever,’ they miss the big picture, that is, this isn’t an addiction crisis, this is a death crisis.”
Mullins says establishing a safe supply of medicines in BC would be the most effective response to the crisis.
BC has petitioned the federal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use to reduce and prevent future deaths from drug poisoning.
Lapointe has called for this to be accelerated, and the new report calls for Ottawa to approve the application by April 11 this year.
Federal Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino, who is in British Columbia this week, told CBC News Monday morning that Ottawa was taking the report and its recommendations seriously.
He made no commitment as to when or if the federal government would enact decriminalization legislation.
“The government will work very closely with health experts to continue to support these measures as much as possible,” he said. “Ultimately, we must get people facing these substance challenges the appropriate health care and treatment they need, and the government has a duty to do that.”
Self-help groups see demographic changes
Secretary of State for Mental Health and Addiction Sheila Malcolmson says the report confirms the urgency of the Government’s work on safer drug supplies and continuity of care.
“We agree that one of the most important actions we can take to save lives is to disconnect people from the supply of toxic drugs. That’s why BC launched a safer care program in 2020 and expanded it in 2021, becoming the first and only province in Canada to do so,” Malcolmson said in a written statement.
Penny Douglass knows the pain of losing a loved one to illegal drugs and has also seen firsthand the growing problem of overdoses.
Douglass lost her son to an overdose nine years ago.
She says the Kamloops, BC, peer-run support group she is part of has seen a surge in demand, but also a shift in demographics, as more grandparents seek help when caring for their grandchildren.
“These are parents whose children would be in that dangerous age range of 35 to 50,” she said.
Douglass says it can be “very scary for someone in their 70s or late 60s to suddenly have an 11-year-old, a nine-year-old,” while also coping with seeing their own children struggle with the addiction.
She says the group helps parents deal with overwhelming guilt.
“We’re focusing on what we call the three Cs — as a parent, you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it,” she said.
Douglass’ son Simon died of a drug overdose at the age of 30 after struggling with drug use for more than a decade. Once he was in intensive care for three weeks after an overdose.
“Four days after he got out of intensive care and was discharged, he started doing drugs again,” she recalls.
She said he had been in the provincial prison system for nine months before his death.
“When he came out we said to him, ‘You can’t come and stay with us. You have to find out,'” she said.
“We did our best”
Douglass said she hugged her son, gave him a garbage bag with his belongings, and he left. Days later he died of an overdose in Kelowna, BC
“There’s always your guilt, but we did our best back then,” she said.
Having a child with substance use problems can be all-consuming, she says, so the group tries to get parents to focus on their own health and well-being while also trying to accept that they “don’t care” about their children can repair”.
“Sometimes when we stop fixing them, they get help,” she said.
The group meets every Tuesday from 5-7 p.m. PT at the Elizabeth Fry Housing Society in Kamloops.