Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Support quality journalism
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
The Globe and Mail
Support quality journalism
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Globe and Mail website displayed on various devices
Just$1.99
per week
for the first 24 weeks

var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){console.log("scroll");var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1);

British Columbia’s first drop in overdose deaths since 2012 signals not the end of the public health crisis but the beginning of refocused efforts to prevent overdoses in the first place, health officials say.

Data released by the BC Coroners Service on Monday showed that there were at least 981 deaths in 2019 – a 36-per-cent decrease from 1,543 deaths in 2018. (The figure will likely grow as death investigations conclude.) It’s the first decrease since 2012, before which illicit fentanyl – a major driver of the overdose crisis – was so uncommon that it was not routinely tested for postmortem.

In 2012, the opioid was detected in less than 5 per cent of overdose deaths. In 2019, it was detected in 84 per cent.

Story continues below advertisement

At a news conference in Victoria on Monday, health officials attributed the drop to the many harm-reduction initiatives launched in B.C. in recent years. They include an expansion of supervised drug-consumption sites, widespread naloxone distribution and the availability of drug-checking services.

But the death toll is still nearly five times what it was in the 2000s, and merely keeping people alive is not enough. Perry Kendall, co-interim executive director with the BC Centre on Substance Use, spoke of long-term brain damage resulting from non-fatal overdoses and said the scope of impact to communities is only just beginning to be understood.

“Surviving an overdose is not enough. Stopping death is important, but it isn’t enough,” Dr. Kendall said. “We must refocus on implementing strategies to prevent overdoses from occurring in the first place, however politically challenging that may be.”

Innovative treatments such as injectable hydromorphone and diacetylmorphine (pharmaceutical-grade heroin) are still “barely accessible,” he noted. And, the province swiftly dismissed a blueprint to decriminalize people who use drugs, released by Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry last year.

“Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that our collective efforts are having an impact,” Dr. Kendall said. “But also, this can only be seen as the beginning of our response – not the end. There is much work still to be done.”

Dr. Henry said the priority must now be on providing pharmaceutical alternatives for people dependent on illicit drugs.

“There are a number of projects that have been started but we are not yet where we need to be to support the members of our community who need our help through this crisis," she said.

Story continues below advertisement

B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe says illicit drug overdoses killed 981 people last year, which represents about 2.7 deaths a day. She says the numbers of overdose deaths are down 36 per cent compared to 2018, but they are virtually the same as the number of deaths recorded four years ago when B.C. declared a public health emergency. The Canadian Press

While fentanyl is the drug most commonly found in “down” – the colloquial term for illicit opioids such as heroin – it’s far from the only one. Carfentanil, a tranquilizer intended to immobilize large animals such as elk and moose, was detected in 130 overdose deaths in 2019, up from 35 in 2018. Benzodiazepines and other similar drugs are also being cut into down, increasing the risk of overdose, rendering users unconscious for hours at a time and putting them at risk of being robbed or assaulted.

In recent years, the coroners service renamed overdose deaths as “illicit drug toxicity deaths” in its reports to reflect that people are dying not from taking too many drugs, but from a highly volatile drug supply.

Lance Stephenson, director of patient care delivery with BC Emergency Health Services, said Monday that paramedics respond to roughly 24,000 overdose events a year, and saw a 2 per cent increase in 2019.

Nel Wieman, senior medical officer of mental health and wellness with the First Nations Health Authority, said a separate data release on the impact of B.C.’s overdose crisis on Indigenous people is forthcoming, but that it is proportionally greater than that of the general population.

“The reasons for our higher numbers are obvious to us: the impacts of colonization, the disempowerment and enduring trauma of experiences such as the Indian residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and the still prevalent racist stereotyping and discrimination of Indigenous people,” Dr. Wieman said. “We know that substance use disorder can be symptoms of a person’s distress. For Indigenous people, this distress is often rooted in grief, loss, disconnection and unresolved intergenerational trauma.”

Since Jan. 1, 2016, more than 5,010 people have died in B.C. due to a volatile illicit-drug supply contaminated with fentanyl, carfentanil, benzodiazepines and other adulterants.

Story continues below advertisement

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies