October marked a dismal milestone in British Columbia.
In October more people died of overdoses than any month ever, with preliminary data showing at least 201 deaths from the toxic illegal drug supply in our province.
To put that into perspective, that is more than six people per day.
The yearly total of deaths through October 2021 is equally stark: 1,782. How anyone can still think this is not a crisis that we need to deal with as an emergency is baffling. We’re at the point where we need to try anything and everything, because we are losing thousands of people.
Looking at the number of deaths it is sobering to consider how many people in B.C. must be addicted to drugs for the pace to continue to grow. No community is immune, no matter how small or remote. It’s all too easy for people to point to the notorious Downtown Eastside Vancouver, or even the homeless in downtown Duncan and think the crisis is contained to these areas. It is not. Urban centres do have the highest overdose death totals, just by virtue of the size of their populations, but when you break it down to rates of death compared to population size, you see just how pervasive the crisis really is. The highest rates of death by local health area are Upper Skeena, Lillooet, Merritt, North Thompson and Enderby. Not the community names that might immediately spring to mind. North Vancouver Island has one of the highest rates of death when sorted by health service delivery area.
Further, 71 per cent of deaths were in people aged 30 to 59 with a median of 43 — people in the prime of their lives. The crisis is also disproportionately hitting men; 79 per cent of overdose cases were men.
And these numbers from the BC Coroners Service don’t even account for the number of people in our communities for whom drugs have not yet proven fatal, those who overdose again and again, brought back by naloxone and emergency services.
It is only a matter of time, really, before these folks join the Coroner’s statistics.
Criminalizing people addicted to drugs has not worked to solve the crisis; the decades we have followed that policy only bringing us to now. Change has begun, but as the death toll continues to mount it seems slow and patchwork, with a safe supply pilot project here and more rehabilitation beds there. We need comprehensive rollout of these services and more, such as mental health supports and early intervention, in all of our communities.
And we need it now.