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174 people died from toxic drug supply in August, B.C. coroner finds

Unregulated drug toxicity is leading cause of death for British Columbians aged 10 to 59

The BC Coroners Service says August saw the lowest number of people die from toxic drugs since June 2022, but that the total number in 2023 is still trending higher than last year.

Last month, at least 174 British Columbians lost their lives to the unregulated and toxic supply of drugs in the province. Two of those people were under the age of 19.

The month’s total represents an eight per cent decrease from the number of deaths in August 2022, and a 14 per cent drop from those in July 2023, but Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said the crisis is no less extreme.

“We are continuing to lose members of our communities in heartbreaking numbers,” she said in a statement Monday (Sept. 25).

So far this year, 1,645 people have died, 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.

The majority of toxic drug deaths in 2023 continue to be among people aged 30 to 59 (70 per cent) and men (78 per cent).

The highest number of deaths were recorded in Vancouver, Surrey and Greater Victoria. The highest rate – meaning deaths per 100,000 people – were in Vancouver, North Thompson, Greater Nanaimo and Terrace.

The BC Coroners Service says 48 per cent of deaths occur in private residences, 32 per cent occur inside shelters, hotels or supportive housing and 19 per cent occur outside. Smoking is the most common mode of consumption at 65 per cent, followed by injection (15 per cent), nasal insufflation (14 per cent) and oral (five per cent).

One death has occurred at an overdose prevention site this year. There is no indication prescribed safer supply has contributed to deaths.

In fact, Lapointe continues to call 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.

B.C. has offered limited prescribed safer supply since March 2020, but critics say it’s been largely limited to pilot projects in large metropolitan areas and hasn’t been accessible to most people who use drugs in B.C. The province announced in June it is referring the policy to see if it should cover more people.

In a statement Monday, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said that the province is working to break down the barriers of shame and stigma that can stop people who use drugs from seeking help. She said they are focused on early intervention and support services, but didn’t mention safer supply. She did note the topic was widely discussed by regional leaders last week during the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities conference in Vancouver.

On other ends of the political spectrum, Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau has called for expanded safer supply, while BC United leader Kelvin Falcon has said his party would end B.C.’s three-year decriminalization pilot.

At least 12,929 British Columbians have died since B.C. declared a public health emergency in April 2016,.

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