More Than 200 British Columbians Died of Drug Overdose in the First Two Months of 2017

Front line advocates are calling on the feds to declare a national health emergency, and start tracking cross-country deaths.
March 17, 2017, 8:26pm
Photo by Jackie Dives

British Columbia's overdose epidemic has killed 219 people in 2017 so far—significantly more than the first two months of 2016.

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil continue to taint drugs across the country, but BC remains the hardest hit. Drug overdoses have now killed 998 British Columbians over the last 12 months.

Though the province's death toll has come down a bit since its peak in December 2016, BC's coroner released a statement Friday cautioning that the crisis is far from over. "People are dying in far higher numbers than we've ever seen, and a slight decrease in fatalities from the previous month should not be seen as any indication that the risk has decreased," said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.

The coroner noted none of the deaths happened at government-sponsored supervised injection sites, or volunteer-run overdose prevention sites. "This is evidence that these sites are saving lives," Lapointe said. "People need to be encouraged to visit these sites as the majority of deaths are occurring when people use illicit substances without medical attention or assistance nearby."

Read More: No One Knows How Many People Are Dying in BC Recovery Homes

Sarah Blyth, co-founder of a back alley overdose prevention site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, told VICE the new numbers were "really depressing" and proof the feds need to jump in and do more. "It's just going to be really terrible if it takes that many more people to die for them to declare a national health crisis."

BC declared a public health emergency in April of last year, and with that came a push for real-time overdose tracking. With the exception of Alberta, which is also keeping up-to-date stats, most provinces' data on overdose deaths are either years out of date, or incomplete.

Justin Trudeau's government has pledged $65 million over five years to battle opioid misuse, with $10 million in emergency funds slated for BC, and $6 million for Alberta. That money is supposed to go towards collecting evidence and supporting better addiction treatment options.

The feds' "opioid action plan" makes no mention of prescription heroin treatment, something BC politicians have hinted at. "That's a solution that people don't want to deal with—providing a medical version," Blyth said. "That takes money, and people don't want to pay for that."

Lead image: A study participant at Vancouver clinic injects prescription heroin. Photo by Jackie Dives.

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.