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Courageous action needed to save lives from illicit overdoses, B.C.'s coroner says

VICTORIA — British Columbia's outgoing chief coroner says it's been "extremely disappointing" to see overdose deaths turned into "political fodder" for critics of harm reduction and decriminalization as the province hits another record toll.
A Naloxone anti-overdose kit is held in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

VICTORIA — British Columbia's outgoing chief coroner says it's been "extremely disappointing" to see overdose deaths turned into "political fodder" for critics of harm reduction and decriminalization as the province hits another record toll.

Lisa Lapointe announced Wednesday that 2,511 people died of suspected illicit drug poisoning last year, the highest annual number recorded. Close to 14,000 people have died since the province declared a public health emergency in April 2016, Lapointe told a news conference.

"Our country has historically responded to drug use with punishment, imprisonment, fines, court orders and criminal records," Lapointe said. "This response has resulted in lost jobs, lost families, lost dignity and lost hope. It has required huge investments in the criminal justice system, police, courts, probation officers and prisons." 

The surging death toll is a direct result of the powerful opioid fentanyl, which continues to be the main driver in drug deaths, she said. 

Asking doctors to prescribe a safe supply will not address the crisis, and Lapointe noted that only about 5,000 people have access to prescribed safer supply. 

"One million people in our province don't have access to a family doctor, never mind the focused and specialized expertise needed to address a public health emergency of this magnitude," she said.

"Unless we are willing to act thoughtfully, carefully and with courage to provide a safer supply for the tens of thousands of people at risk in our province, we will continue to count the dead, more people will suffer and more families will grieve."

Thousands of people have died preventable deaths since the emergency was declared, Lapointe said, because of the focus on policing and punishment instead of the underlying reasons for drug use such as pain, trauma and mental health issues.

She said 70 per cent of those who died last year were between the ages of 30 and 59, and more than three-quarters were male. The highest rates of death were in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and in Hope, a community of about 6,000 at the eastern end of the Fraser Valley. 

It's estimated that 225,000 people in B.C. access their drugs from the toxic, illicit market, putting them all at risk, the chief coroner said. 

People who use drugs are "not bad people," but family members and friends, and the politicization of the overdose crisis has been "extremely disappointing," she said. 

"We see many focus on stigmatizing, vilifying and marginalizing our community members who use drugs, beating them down instead of helping them out and focusing on punishment," she said. "We've neglected many of the things that would actually make a positive difference, that would actually reduce harms for individuals and communities, and that would actually save lives."

Health Canada granted an exemption to B.C. from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, allowing adults to possess small amounts of illegal drugs in an effort reduce stigma around drug use. Decriminalization has been in place in B.C. for almost a year. 

The change has brought criticism from municipal politicians, who said it has allowed open drug use in public places.

The provincial government moved to make legislative changes, but a nurses group went to B.C. Supreme Court, where a judge temporarily stayed the law, citing harm to those who use drugs. 

Lapointe said concerns about public drug use shouldn't lead to pushing users into "alleys and dark corners" instead of establishing safe places to use drugs.

When people have no place to live, Lapointe said, they're outdoors and visible, living in tents or resting on benches or in doorways or alleys. 

"They're trying to stay warm or stay dry or stay safe, all in the public eye. We may see them using drugs outdoors because the outdoors is their living space," she said. "If public drug use is greater, is it due to decriminalization or is it due to more people having nowhere to live? Decriminalization didn't cause inflation. Decriminalization didn't cause the housing crisis."

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said in response that the higher number of deaths reflects “increased volatility and toxicity” in the illicit drug supply, and the province continues to “scale up” harm-reduction services such as access to overdose prevention sites.

“It's important to note that the illicit drug supply is very poisoned,” Whiteside said. “It's very contaminated. It is very volatile, and it is killing people. Our goal is to keep people alive so that we can connect them to care, and that is what is driving all of the work that we're doing with our health authorities, with community partners to build out access so that people have access to that care.”

Whiteside said the government has implemented a number of Lapointe’s recommendations, and that the province is committed to scaling up initiatives that keep people “connected to health care” such as the pharmaceutical alternative program that prescribes alternatives to illicit drugs.

But she also said the province will not back down from its support for law enforcement in going after “predatory drug dealers” in keeping communities safe as it relates to the drug crisis.

“We don't want to see people struggling with addiction thrown in jail,” Whiteside said. “We want to see them connected to the care and support that they need. We want them to have access to health care. That's our primary goal."

The BC Coroners Service death review panel report released last year recommended providing controlled drugs to people without prescriptions to stem overdose deaths. The government rejected the recommendations even before Lapointe finished the news conference on the report. 

A statement from the group Moms Stop The Harm said it's evident that actions the B.C. government have taken so far have had no effect on reducing a death rate of about seven people every day. 

"Money and resources spent have not made any impact," the group said.

"As a result, people who use drugs in B.C., including our most vulnerable citizens, continue to be at risk. Courageous and bold action must be taken, and instead politicians posture for their own gains."

BC United Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon said in statement Wednesday that the latest overdose death numbers are a "damning indictment of the NDP government’s disastrous decriminalization policy which has recklessly endangered lives.” 

“The consequences of this government’s negligence can be seen in the lives lost, families broken and communities suffering," Falcon said. 

The overdose death toll dipped in 2019 to fewer than 1,000 deaths, but those numbers surged through the pandemic to a high of more than 2,300 people in 2021 only to be surpassed by the 2023 figure. 

— By Darryl Greer in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2024. 

The Canadian Press