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Nearly 500 British Columbians lost to toxic illicit drugs in first three months of 2021

B.C.’s opioid crisis rages on – and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

The BC Coroners Service reports that toxic illicit drugs claimed 158 lives last month.

This raises the total number of deaths in B.C. for the year to 498.

“Once again, we are reminded of the incredible toll that the toxic drug emergency is having on communities throughout our province,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, BC Coroners Service. 

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“The illicit drug supply in British Columbia is volatile and unpredictable, and anyone using a substance from this unregulated market is vulnerable to serious injury or death.”

The 158 deaths marks a 41 percent increase over the 112 deaths recorded in March 2020 and ties the previous high for March established in 2018. 

For the third consecutive month, more than five B.C.’ers lost their lives to illicit drugs every day, and the yearly total to date surpassed the previous high of 401 deaths recorded between January and March 2017. 

The provincewide death rate for 2021 stands at 38.3 per 100,000 residents.

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Breaking it down by region, 23 people died on Vancouver Island in March, while illicit drugs claimed 44 lives last month in the Vancouver Coastal region, which includes the Sunshine Coast.

And, over the first three months of 2021, 19 people died on the Central Island and 13 on the North Island from illicit drugs.

As in previous months, the drug supply continues to be volatile in terms of both variability and toxicity. 

Carfentanil played a part in 18 deaths in March, bringing the total number of carfentanil-related deaths in 2021 to 48. 

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For comparison, carfentanil was detected in 65 deaths between January and December 2020. 

Additionally, the detection rate of benzodiazepines has increased from 15 percent of samples in July 2020 to 51 percent of samples in February 2021.

“There are no simple solutions to the toxic drug crisis this province is experiencing,” Lapointe said. “Problematic substance use is widespread throughout our province, and evidence-based strategies, such as supervised consumption and drug-checking services, prescription alternatives and accessible and meaningful treatment and recovery options, are essential to reduce the death and suffering.”

The report also found that:

  • The number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in March 2021 was about 5.1 deaths per day.
  • In 2021, 69 percent of those dying were aged 30 to 59.
  • Males accounted for 80% of deaths in 2021.
  • By health authority, the highest death rates in 2021 are in Northern Health (57 deaths per 100,000 individuals) and Vancouver Coastal Health (45 per 100,000).
  •  No deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.
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