B.C.’s chief coroner will retire in February after 13 years in the position and three decades in public service, saying her greatest regret has been her inability to get the province to act on recommendations she made on solving the toxic-drug public health emergency.
Lisa Lapointe, who previously held bureaucratic positions in British Columbia’s Corrections Branch and its Civil Forfeiture Office, said in a statement Wednesday that she would be stepping down at the the end of her third term. She said she leaves an agency that has been “forever altered” by the crisis in which more than 13,300 people have died since 2016, the year the province declared the overdoses a public health emergency.
“It deeply saddens me that we have been unable to influence the essential change necessary to reduce the tragic impacts of toxic drugs on so many thousands of our family members, friends and colleagues across the province,” she wrote, referencing B.C.’s immediate rejection of last month’s expert panel on the “essential” measures needed to solve the crisis.
At the time, Ms. Lapointe acknowledged the panel’s core recommendation was controversial: expanding the province’s fledging safer-supply program by allowing community-based agencies to provide access to regulated opioids and stimulants without prescriptions in efforts to stop deaths from toxic illicit drugs.
“The notion of providing access to controlled drugs to people already experiencing harm from controlled drugs can feel like a contradiction – I understand that,” she said at the Nov. 1 news conference. “If you had asked me several years ago, I, too, would have been skeptical about the value of that kind of initiative.”
The recommendations from the death review panel were released the same day as the province’s latest illicit-drug death figures, which showed that 175 people died in September. Ms. Lapointe said an estimated 225,000 people in British Columbia use illicit substances and are at risk of death. As of August, there were 3,277 publicly funded adult and youth community substance-use beds in the province and about 25,000 people receiving medication-assisted treatment, such as with methadone or Suboxone.
B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Jennifer Whiteside, said in a letter delivered to the chief coroner the day the panel’s report was released that her government was not considering ramping up the three-year-old program, which has been attacked by rival politicians as it supplies roughly 4,500 of the province’s estimated 100,000 people diagnosed with an opioid-use disorder.
Ms. Whiteside’s staff did not immediately respond to a request to comment on Ms. Lapointe’s retirement Wednesday afternoon. Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth, whose ministry is now in charge of hiring Ms. Lapointe’s replacement, sent a statement touting her invaluable leadership and “her tireless efforts in the challenging role of Chief Coroner.”
Guy Felicella, a former longtime drug user who is now a peer clinical adviser for Vancouver Coastal Health and the BC Centre on Substance Use, said Ms. Lapointe was a humble and extremely well-respected ally in the fight to stop people dying from poisoned substances.
“This is a woman that absorbed a lot of hearing about people’s sadness and pain and she was able to show up month after month and get to that podium and answer all the questions and say things that I’m sure politically weren’t correct to a lot of people – you admire that,” said Mr. Felicella, who joined Ms. Lapointe’s drug death news conferences several times in recent years to deliver his unvetted thoughts on the grim situation.