The latest numbers on illicit drug overdose deaths for the province are in, and they paint a grim picture.
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe says 2016 was a devastating year for overdose deaths, with a record 914 people succumbing to drugs.
“The month of December saw the highest monthly number of illicit drug deaths recorded in BC: 142 people died last month as a result of illicit drug use, an average of nine people every two days.”
That’s nearly 80% higher than the year before.
The report credits the spike in deaths largely to fentanyl and its analogues, noting drug deaths not linked to the substance have stayed nearly constant in the last decade.
However, Cheif Coroner Lisa Lapointe says her office is waiting on toxicology reports and is unable to give a firm number on fentanyl deaths until March.
More than 80% of the fatalities were men, and about 73% of them people between the ages of 19 and 49.
Vancouver saw the highest number of deaths, 215, followed by Surrey at 108 and Victoria at 66.
New treatment options coming
Calling the crisis “unprecedented,” Health Minister Terry Lake called today for a national overdose response.
He also announced $16-million in new funding for addiction treatment services, while admitting more could have been done earlier, saying “hindsight is 20-20.”
Lake says $10-million of money will go to adding 60 new beds in residential treatment centres.
The province will also make 50 intensive outpatient spaces available for a 90-day program, expected to service 200 people in a year.
Lake says drug replacement treatments like Suboxone, which don’t give the user a high, will also now be available for free to people who qualify for MSP assistance.
Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall says there are already thousands more people currently in treatment, with 15% more people seeking help in 2016 than the year prior.
However, he says more needs to be done, and it’s time for Canada to reexamine it’s regulatory regime to allow treatments like prescription narcotics — now considered radical here, but accepted in Europe — to be available to more than a select few.
Too little too late?
Carole James with the NDP says the government sat on their hands for too long, leaving the province ill-prepared for the devastation we are seeing.
“This is not a new crisis. The magnitude is a new crisis but the struggle with addictions in this province has been going on for years and now it takes a crisis for this government to say we’re going to put some beds in place.
James says the province hasn’t even made good on the 500 treatment beds it promised, but that are still not all in place.
She says the NDP would find the money to pay for more treatment options by rescinding the tax-break the liberals gave to the top 2% of earners.
Those who see people overdose everyday in the Downtown Eastside say the numbers are high, but then, they expected them to be.
Sarah Blyth, who spearheaded the unsanctioned DTES “pop-up” injection site says she’s not surprised by what she just heard.
“I’m right in the Downtown Eastside every day and I’ve seen a lot of overdoses personally, and I hear about people dying in the neighbourhood so I knew it was going to be a big number.”
But Blyth says she’s also not surprised that no deaths were recorded at supervised injection sites, saying the sites also help educate people about overdose prevention.
Last month there were 142 overdose deaths in BC, the highest ever recorded, and more than double the average since 2015 pic.twitter.com/UDgvSPxLf0— Simon Little (@simonplittle) January 18, 2017
Coroner's service says spike in deaths appears largely a result of fentanyl, with non-fentanyl linked fatalities remaining fairly constant pic.twitter.com/u3Zd9s3PHl— Simon Little (@simonplittle) January 18, 2017
Exact data for the percentage of OD deaths linked to fentanyl won't be available until March.— Simon Little (@simonplittle) January 18, 2017
On a positive note, Coroner's report says not a single overdose death occurred in 2016 at a supervised consumption sit/ OD prevention site— Simon Little (@simonplittle) January 18, 2017
Here's the grim month by month breakdown of 2016 overdose deaths. pic.twitter.com/40KpF9Pd01— Simon Little (@simonplittle) January 18, 2017
For one former addict, today’s numbers from the Coroners Service are “alarming.”
Marshall Smith, the former high-flyer government staffer – turned drug addict – turned recovery activist, says BC is continuing a trend of overdose fatalities, but says he liked what he heard from Health Minister Terry Lake announcing 16-million dollars in new funding for addiction treatment services.
“I think that the government acknowledging and working towards recovery as a priority and a goal for people is something that sends a very important message that we need to hear more about from the government.”
Smith says while fatalities are high, he’s seeing many people seeking treatment because of the crisis.
With files from Liza Yuzda and Jeremy Lye