As the five-year anniversary of the province’s illicit drug toxicity public health emergency approaches, the BC Coroners Service reported on Wednesday that 2020 was BC’s worst year yet in terms of number of lives lost to toxic illicit drugs.
During a press conference, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said there were 1,716 deaths due to illicit drugs in 2020 in the province, representing a 74% increase over the number of deaths recorded in 2019 (984).
The number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020 equates to about 4.7 deaths per day, which is two deaths per day higher than in 2019 (2.7).
Put another way, the province said the toxic illicit drug supply in British Columbia has claimed more lives than motor-vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides, and prescription-drug-related deaths combined.
“The impacts of COVID-19 highlighted the immensely precarious situation of those experiencing problematic substance use in our province” said Lapointe. “Decades of criminalization, an increasingly toxic illicit drug market and the lack of timely access to evidence-based treatment and recovery services have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives in BC.”
Lapointe said it’s clear “that urgent change is needed to prevent future deaths and the resulting grief and loss so many families and communities have experienced across our province.”
There were 152 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in December 2020. This is a 130% increase over the number of deaths in December 2019 (66) and a 4% decrease from the number of deaths that occurred in November 2020 (158).
In 2020, 69% of those dying were aged 30 to 59, and males accounted for 81% of deaths.
The communities that experienced the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020 were Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.
Fentanyl or its analogues continued to be detected in more than 80% of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020. Cocaine and methamphetamine were the next most commonly detected drugs.
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In 2020, 84% of illicit drug toxicity deaths occurred inside (56% in private residences and 28% in other residences including social and supportive housing, single-residence occupancies, shelters, and hotels and other indoor locations) and 14% occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets, parks, and similar locations. Illicit drug toxicity death rates among individuals aged 19-59 has been trending downwards over several months, while rates among persons aged 60 and up have been trending upwards. Rates among those aged 0-18 remain low.
“This overwhelming loss of life is felt deeply in every community, and we mourn with families, friends, co-workers and teammates who are grieving unbearably tragic loss,” said Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “One of the most insidious impacts of the pandemic has been increased toxicity due to disruption in the supply chain for illicit drugs across the country.”
And in light of today’s report, Malcolmson said she is committed “to continuing our unrelenting response to the overdose crisis,” and finding “even more ways to support and separate people from the poisoned drug supply.”