VICTORIA — British Columbia’s coroner says more people died of illicit drug overdoses last year, despite significant efforts to combat the crisis.
The BC Coroners Service said Thursday that illicit overdose deaths increased to 1,489, just over the 2017 death total.
That figure is likely to go higher as death investigations conclude for last year, it said.
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the illicit drug supply is unpredictable and the opioid fentanyl is implicated in 86 per cent of the overdose deaths.
There were 1,486 overdose deaths in 2017.
Lapointe said B.C. must be prepared to do things differently to save more lives.
Figures show middle-aged men are overrepresented in the death toll, with 80 per cent of the suspected overdose deaths involving males and 71 per cent involving people aged 30 to 59.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said there’s a need to connect people who use drugs with better supports, rather than sending them to the criminal justice system.
She also called for options to provide people at risk of overdose with low-barrier access to a regulated supply of opioids.
“If we’re going to turn the corner on this complex crisis, we need to find the ways to provide safer alternatives to the unregulated and highly-toxic drug supply and to end the stigma associated with criminalization of people who use drugs,” she said.
Dr. Evan Wood, executive director with the BC Centre on Substance Use, said in a news release that the crisis isn’t slowing down and there’s an urgent need to end the harms caused by prohibition.
“If we’re going to stop overdoses from happening, we urgently need to end the harms caused by prohibition while also implementing upstream responses that address the serious health and social consequences of untreated addiction.”
Leslie McBain, whose son died of a drug overdose five years ago, said too many people are still dying and more work needs to be done to prevent deaths.
“This is a crisis,” she said. “Work has been done, but the numbers, almost 1,500 people dying last year, is not good.”
B.C.’s provincial health officer declared a public health emergency in April 2016 in response to the rise in drug overdoses and deaths.
Data from a federal task force on opioid deaths said nearly 4,000 Canadians died as a result of overdoses in 2017, a 34 per cent increase from the previous year.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press