Original Published on Jul 14, 2022 at 15:45

By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

British Columbia’s toxic drug supply killed 195 more people in May, putting 2022 on course to be the third consecutive deadliest year in the  public health emergency.

More than six people died each day on average in May, the BC Coroners Service reported today. That’s the highest number ever recorded in the month of May.

This year’s data has already counted 940  deaths, compared to 896 in the first five months of 2021, when 2,265  people died in total. The year before, 1,774 people were killed in  total.

Deaths in May represent a 20-per-cent jump compared to the 162 people killed in April, preceded by 172 people dying in March.

More than twice as many  people per capita are dying now than when the province declared a public  health emergency in April 2016. Right now, 42.9 people are dying per  100,000 people, compared to 20.4 people in 2016.

The unregulated, illicit  drug supply has become increasingly unpredictable and toxic in recent  years and is the main driver of the unprecedented number of people  dying, an expert panel convened by the chief coroner concluded in March. 

It recommended a rapid expansion of safe  supplies of regulated drugs to separate people from the toxic drug  supply, echoing years of calls from drug users, advocates and experts.

But the province has not moved  to make safe supply available to many people beyond a few federally  funded pilot projects in Victoria and the Lower Mainland. Many of the  panel’s recommended deadlines for action have already passed.

And B.C.’s application to decriminalize  personal possession of some illicit substances starting in January,  recently approved by Health Canada, also fell short of what drug users say is needed to reduce the harms they face from police and the legal system.

An all-party legislative committee has been tasked with making recommendations to government on the toxic drug crisis. It is accepting comments from the public until Aug. 5.

As bold action has stalled at all levels of  government, the province’s illicit drug supply has changed rapidly.  Benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives that make drug poisonings more  deadly and difficult to reverse when combined with opioids, have been  present in 40 per cent of deaths since January, up from 15 per cent in  July 2020. In May, this number dipped slightly to 32 per cent. 

Fentanyl has contributed to more than 80  per cent of deaths since the end of 2016, but its more potent analogue,  carfentanil, has sharply risen as a factor. It contributed to 65 deaths  in 2020, 189 in 2021 and 55 so far in 2022.

There is no indication prescribed safe supply is contributing to deaths.

The toxicity of the supply means that many  people dying are not regular users and would not be considered addicted  or eligible for many of the limited safe supply programs the province  has rolled out.

Yet the crisis continues to ravage  communities in all corners of the province. Vancouver, Surrey and  Victoria experience the greatest number of deaths.

But the toxic drug crisis  disproportionately affects northern B.C., which has the highest per  capita death rate at 53.3 people per 100,000. 

First Nations people are also more than  five times as likely to die from toxic drugs due to poor access to  health care and the ongoing impacts of colonization and  intergenerational trauma. 

According to a 2021 report  from the First Nations Health Authority, First Nations women are at 10  times higher risk than their non-Indigenous peers.

This item reprinted with permission from The Tyee, Vancouver, British Columbia