Skip to main content

A drug user injects in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

B.C. had more overdoses in 2016 than any year on record as fentanyl cast a wide net across the province

British Columbia marked a bleak milestone in 2016: the deadliest year on record for drug users. By Dec. 31, 914 people were dead across the province – casualties of a worsening crisis that has been fuelled by the emergence of fentanyl and, more recently, carfentanil. The powerful synthetic opioids, which are many times more powerful than heroin, are often cut into other street drugs and unknowingly consumed by users.

Those deaths cast a wide net across age groups and communities in all corners of the province. Here's what you need to know about how the death toll breaks down.

A deadly year

B.C.'s coroner has been tracking overdose deaths for three decades, and last year was the deadliest by a large margin. The statistics from 2016 broke the previous record set a year earlier and is more than double the yearly death tolls in the late 1990s linked to heroin.

As well, 2016 ended with the worst month on record, with 142 people dying in December. Earlier in the year, roughly 60 people were dying each month, which was already an alarming rate.

The emergence of fentanyl

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid painkiller that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, and it has been singled out as the main culprit in a surge of fatal overdoses across the country. In B.C., it was first detected in overdose victims in 2012, and the increase in fatalities has mirrored the increased presence of fentanyl. In fact, the number of fatal overdoses that aren't linked to fentanyl has remained relatively stable in recent years.

Who's dying

The people dying of drug overdoses in B.C. are overwhelmingly male. Men make up a slightly higher percentage of victims today – about 81 per cent – compared with a decade ago, when they accounted for 77 per cent of overdose fatalities.

While the largest proportion of victims are in their 30s, the victims come from a range of ages.

Where overdoses happen

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is seen as ground zero for fatal overdoses, and the numbers bear that out: The city had by far the most deaths last year. But other areas, particularly in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver, have also been affected by what the provincial government has declared a public-health emergency.

Health officials in B.C. have acknowledged that it's unrealistic to advise users to simply stop consuming drugs, so they have instead focused on urging them to take precautions. One of the most important pieces of advice: Don't use alone. Overdoses in private residences make up the bulk of fatalities.