2020 Was the Worst Year Ever for Overdose Deaths in B.C.

Drug overdose deaths far outpaced deaths from COVID-19 in the province, which is pursuing decriminalization.
February 11, 2021, 7:31pm
A woman and man embrace while listening to people speak about loved ones during a memorial to remember victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020.

More than 1,700 people died of illicit drug toxicity deaths in British Columbia during 2020, a 74 percent increase from 2019, making it the worst year on record for the province that has been the epicentre of the overdose crisis in Canada.

B.C. has seen record-breaking overdose death rates since the start of the pandemic—averaging around five people every day—and the latest data for December released on Thursday by the provincial coroner paints an especially bleak picture. 

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Nearly 70 percent of the drug toxicity deaths in 2020 were among people between the ages of 30 and 59, with men accounting for 81 percent of the deaths. Fentanyl was detected in the vast majority of the overdose deaths, followed by meth and cocaine.

Illicit drug deaths in the province far outpace deaths due to suicide, car accidents, murder, and prescription drugs, the report notes. Drug overdoses also surpassed the total 901 deaths due to COVID-19 in B.C. in 2020. 

The province declared a public health emergency over opioid deaths in 2016 and had seen a decline in deaths in 2019, progress that was dashed last year.

“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 B.C.,” the province’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said at a press conference on Thursday. “Urgent change is needed to prevent future deaths and the resulting grief and loss so many families and communities have experienced.”

Illicit drug overdose deaths rates have been skyrocketing across North America during the pandemic as more people are forced to use alone and grapple with reduced access to community networks and social programs. Final national data for 2020 is not yet available in either the U.S. or Canada, but preliminary figures indicate that it could be the worst on record.

As drug toxicity deaths rise, the movement supporting drug decriminalization is gaining momentum across both countries as one way to help save lives and reframe drug use and addiction as a health matter and not a crime. 

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Last year, Oregon became the first jurisdiction to decriminalize the personal possession of illicit drugs, and that policy change, inspired by Swiss and Portuguese decriminalization models, came into effect last week. Instead of facing criminal sanctions, people in the state caught with small amounts of drugs will be given the choice between a $100 administrative fine or a health assessment for drug treatment. Oregon has pledged to allocate portions of tax revenue from legal cannabis sales to new drug treatment programs.

Meanwhile, Vancouver’s recent request for a special exemption for drug decriminalization in the city is being considered by Health Canada, and the city is working with health and law enforcement officials to determine what exactly decriminalization would look like. As of last week, the province of British Columbia became the first Canadian province to seek its own federal decriminalization exemption, The Globe and Mail reported on Thursday.

Decriminalization is “a critical component of a comprehensive response to addressing the overdose crisis and an important step to reducing system barriers,” B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions wrote in a letter to federal health minister Patty Hajdu.

While Hajdu has said she’s open to discussing decriminalization with municipal and provincial leaders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said he would not pursue it nationally, saying that the focus should instead be on safer supply programs.

Drug policy advocates across Canada have also been calling for more safer supply programs, in which health officials prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to the increasingly toxic street supply, as a crucial measure to curb overdose deaths and help connect people with healthcare and social services. But, they say safer supply programs are ideally pursued in tandem with decriminalization.

Last week, Health Canada announced more than $15 million for four safer supply programs in Vancouver and Victoria, including providing pharmaceutical-grade heroin for people with chronic opioid addiction. In September, the ministry announced more than $9 million for four other safer supply projects in Ontario.

“There is no other disorder or condition besides substance use disorder in which we force people to access the medicine they require on a street corner and manufactured by the minions of organized crime,” Leslie McBain, executive director of the B.C. drug policy advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm who lost her 25-year-old son Jordan to an overdose in 2014, said in response to the coroner’s report on Thursday.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter.