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Number of toxic drug deaths in Port Alberni jumped in month of August

Alberni-Clayoquot region has seen 21 deaths so far this year
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe provides an update on illicit drug toxicity deaths in the province during a press conference at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, February 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Deaths from toxic drugs jumped in Port Alberni over the summer, according to the most recent report from the BC Coroners Service.

The report for unregulated drug deaths as of August 2023 was released last month, and the number of deaths from toxic drugs in the Alberni-Clayoquot region has jumped up to 21. There were just nine deaths recorded as of July 2023.

This gives the Alberni-Clayoquot region a death rate per 100,000 of 90.2. According to Port Alberni’s Community Action Team (CAT), this is the highest rate of death in the region since 2016, and it puts the region at the eighth-highest rate of death in the province.

Ron Merk, co-chair of the Port Alberni CAT, attributes the steep rise in numbers to the toxicity of the drug supply.

“The toxicity of the unregulated drug supply is increasing, or getting worse,” he said. “People are taking what they think is their standard dose, but sadly that’s not what happens.”

This is made worse by the fact that some opioids are being cut with benzodiazepines, which don’t respond to the lifesaving medication naloxone.

“That’s a serious issue,” Merk said.

So far this year, the BC Coroners Service says 1,645 people have died from toxic drugs, representing the leading cause of death for British Columbians aged 10 to 59. In fact, more people in that age category die from toxic drugs than all homicide, suicide, accident and natural disease deaths combined.

While the B.C. government started a decriminalization pilot project in January of this year, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe is still calling on government ministries and health authorities to provide better harm reduction and treatment services, including access to safer, regulated drugs.

“If we cannot implement these changes, our loved ones will continue to die,” she said.

Merk agreed with this sentiment.

“A safer supply would go a long way in saving lives,” he said.

The best thing that people can do right now is make sure they are using drugs with a “designated driver,” Merk added. This can be with a friend, at the city’s Overdose Prevention Site on Third Avenue or using one of the apps designed to help prevent overdoses, like Lifeguard or Brave.

Merk says that if nothing changes, Port Alberni is trending to experience 31 deaths by the end of the year.

“That would be the most catastrophic year ever since 2016,” he said. “That really concerns us.”

The CAT will be brainstorming ideas to try and turn the tide or shift the numbers, exploring everything from education to harm reduction to try and reduce the current trend. Merk says he is open to receiving any ideas from the general public. The CAT can be contacted at

— with files from Jane Skrypnek and Wolfgang Depner

Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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