Toxic illegal drugs in British Columbia are causing more deaths annually than all other unnatural causes of death combined, according to the province’s chief coroner.
Speaking at a press conference on Feb. 9, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said at least 2,224 people died from illicit drug overdoses in 2021—a 26 percent rise over the previous year—with an average of six lives lost every day.
“In the past seven years, the rate of death due to illicit drug toxicity in our province has risen more than 400%. Drug toxicity is now second only to cancers in B.C. for potential years of life lost,” Lapointe said.
In its preliminary data released on Feb. 9, the B.C. Coroners Service reported that the death rate due to illicit drugs was 42.8 per 100,000 people in 2021, compared to 7.8 per 100,000 in 2014. By 2020, the death rate had already far surpassed the total annual deaths caused by suicides, homicides, car crashes, and prescription drugs.
“Toxic drugs in B.C. cause far more deaths than all other unnatural deaths combined,” said Lapointe.
“It is with tremendous sadness, that I report that our province is in a worse place than it has ever been in this drug toxicity crisis.”
The last two months of 2021 in the province saw the largest number of suspected illicit drug deaths ever recorded per month, with 210 deaths in November and an additional 215 in December.
B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016 when the powerful opioid fentanyl began appearing in overdose deaths. Since then, more than 8,800 residents have died from illicit drug overdoses.
While fentanyl is present in 83 percent of toxicology results from 2021, Lapointe said the rise in benzodiazepines is a “significant concern.” Post-mortem toxicology findings from July 2020, show sedative benzodiazepines in 15 percent of samples, which increased to 50 percent in December, she said.
“This is a particular concern, as benzodiazepines significantly impair the life−saving effects of naloxone used to treat opioid poisoning,” Lapointe said.
According to the province’s latest data, 71 percent of those who died in 2021 were between the ages of 30 and 59, with close to 80 percent of them male.
Lapointe added youth under the age of 19 represented about one percent of the deaths, and that the average age of death due to drug toxicity was 44.
In terms of location, Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria had the highest number of overdose deaths.
Provincial data shows that the majority of drug overdose deaths (83 percent) occurred indoors, with most in private residences and the rest in hotels and shelters, while outdoor locations and vehicles accounted for 15 percent of the deaths.
Last February, former Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told a parliamentary committee that China is one of the main manufacturers of fentanyl and plays a key role in the current overdose crisis in Canada.
“It’s no secret that China is one of the main source countries of fentanyl, as well as the precursor chemicals used to make [these] highly potent and deadly synthetic opioids,” Blair said.
“Illegal fentanyl and fentanyl-like drugs are being mixed in with and contaminating other drugs. This continues to be a major driving factor in the overdose crisis that has tragically cut so many lives short in Canada.”
The Canadian Press contributed to this report.