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2023 was the worst year for fatal toxic drug poisonings in B.C. history

The coroners service warned in October that 2023 would be an unprecedented year for deaths
Dean Anderson holds up a sign before a march on the first National Day of Action to draw attention to the opioid overdose epidemic, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe used her last public appearance to call for “courageous” changes in B.C.’s response to the unregulated drug crisis, which claimed 2,511 people, a record-breaking number over the last decade of data.

Lisa Lapointe shared that figure Wednesday (Jan. 24) in accusing officials of ignoring evidence and falling back on the familiar but false and expensive solution of treating users of drugs as criminals and stigmatizing them.

“We can take measures to save lives, or we can continue to count the dead,” Lapointe said in lamenting the lack of a broader plan and data around which to base such a plan. “We can’t become complacent with drug toxicity as the leading cause of death for a significant portion of our population.”

Lapointe paired her criticism and warning against complacency with familiar calls for the expansion of recovery and treatment services and more controversially, expanding access to safe supply beyond the existing limited model, an idea, which government has already rejected.

B.C. currently offers a limited amount of safe supply in limited locations. But Lapointe said the program in its current shape does not go far enough in noting that current treatment services are simply unable to address the scale of the emergency. Lapointe said it is coinciding with one million British Columbians without a family doctor and a housing crisis in alluding to government information bulletin that shows toxic drug linked to a 28-per-cent increase in homelessness deaths in 2022.

It is this backdrop that requires a new approach, she said.

“I think there is some fear among politicians to be seen as doing something radical,” she said, when asked why this idea of expanding safe supply continues to face resistance. “It’s not radical. We have always treated medical health issues with a medical response or a common sense approach,” she said. “(Our) politicians need to be courageous. They need to push back against the narrative that we are providing drugs.”

Lapointe’s criticism of government comes not only on her last public appearance, but also just days before the one-year-anniversary of B.C.’s limited decriminalization trial. The trial — which exempts from criminal penalties possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal until Jan. 30, 2026 — started Jan. 31, 2023.

The trial has faced criticism from several corners, including municipalities, who have blamed it for declining public safety. Lapointe pushed back against this claim. “(There) is no evidence to suggest that the general public is at risk from people, from public drug use,” she said.

She also disagreed with claims that decriminalization has contributed to the rising death numbers. “Illicit fentanyl is responsible for these deaths,” she said. “The goal of decriminalization didn’t mean that more drugs were available.”

But Lapointe criticized the government for launching decriminalization without the supports in the place. “The treatment and recovery services are not there,” she said. “There are no standards for treatment and recovery. This is not a B.C. issue. This is common across the country.”

Reaction to the new numbers has been swift.

Mental Health Minister Jennifer Whiteside acknowledged them Monday afternoon. “Each of these lives was precious and important, each with their own story, their own dreams and people who love them,” Whiteside said. “They were part of our community and their loss is felt deeply by us all.”

She reiterated her government’s “unwavering” commitment to ending this crisis. “Our government is taking action to strengthen mental-health and addiction services across the spectrum of needs from early intervention and prevention, to housing, to treatment and recovery,” Whiteside said. “Our goal is to ensure that accessible, effective care is there for everyone, right when they need it.”

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Whiteside also said that her government’s actions have made “a meaningful difference” in saving lives. When asked about Lapointe’s criticism, Whiteside said her government will continue to support efforts to go after “predatory” drug dealers supplying increasingly volatile, harmful drugs.

Government continues to do everything in its power to keep people alive by separating users from toxic drugs and connecting them to the services they need, she said, pointing to efforts to expand various types of treatment services and other measures such expanding supervised consumption sites.

Whiteside also touted a recent study by the British Medical Journal that can be read as an endorsement of B.C.’s safe supply program. She said government will review those findings “in order to scale up the model that we have,” adding “it is critical that we keep people connected to health care.”

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon said Lapointe’s report represents a “damning indictment of the NDP government’s disastrous decriminalization policy,” which “has recklessly endangered lives.”

Elenore Sturko, BC United’s shadow minister for mental health, addiction and recovery, said when Premier David Eby assumed office, he pledged to be judged on results.“Well, the results are in, and they are nothing short of disastrous,” she said. “It has never been a deadlier time to be a vulnerable person using drugs in B.C. than right now, under the NDP’s watch.”

Sturko, who has been critical of efforts to expand safe supply, also used the occasion to tout her party’s treatment and recovery based plan in calling for a change in direction.

Whiteside criticized Falcon’s comments about decriminalization as harmful but also reiterated her government’s commitment to public safety following the passage of a law restricting public consumption of drugs. While government does not want arrest people using drugs, the public also has right to be safe, she said.

A court ruling recently stopped that law from coming into effect with the law remaining subject of a Charter challenge.


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