2020 has emerged as the worst year in BC’s history for overdose deaths, with 1,716 people losing their lives due to the effects of toxic illicit drugs.

This represents a 74% increase from the number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019, in which 984 deaths were recorded. The 2020 numbers work out to about 4.7 deaths per day, two deaths higher per day than in 2019 which equalled roughly 2.7 deaths per day.

On April 14, 2016 BC’s Provincial Health Officer declared a public health emergency in response to the rise of drug overdoses and death. In the nearly five years since that declaration, the opioid crisis rages on, with more than 6,600 people dying of overdose from 2016 to 2020.

Toxic illicit drugs have now claimed more lives in BC than motor-vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides, and prescription-drug related deaths combined.

2020 was a difficult year for many, with a global pandemic, economic and employment uncertainty, and social isolation causing many to suffer the effects of loneliness, stress and depression.

“The impacts of COVID-19 highlighted the immensely precarious situation of those experiencing problematic substance use in our province” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner.

“Decades of criminalization, an increasingly toxic illicit drug market and the lack of timely access to evidence-based treatment and recovery services have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives in B.C. It’s clear that urgent change is needed to prevent future deaths and the resulting grief and loss so many families and communities have experienced across our province.”

“One of the most insidious impacts of the pandemic has been increased toxicity due to disruption in the supply chain for illicit drugs across the country,” said Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.

“We stepped up our response to this emergency in B.C., but the illicit drug supply is dramatically more toxic than a year ago – and tragically, more lethal. Combined with the stigma that drives people to use alone and a pandemic that isolates them even further, you have a recipe for a terrible surge in overdose deaths.

“Before the pandemic, we were making progress. In 2019, for the first time since 2012, we brought overdose deaths down. And according to the BC Centre for Disease Control, increases in naloxone distribution, added supervised consumption and more treatment options have averted more than 6,000 deaths. We are going to keep going and building the culturally safe, evidence-based system of mental health and addictions care that works and saves lives. At the same time, we know people are hurting now and there’s more to do.”

Communities in BC which experienced the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths were Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria. Overdose death rates have been trending downward in individuals aged 19 – 59, while rates among persons aged 60 and up have been trending upwards.

The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions website offers advice to drug users on how to stay safe.

  • Know the signs of an overdose and how to respond
  • Get a naloxone kit
  • Go slow and don’t mix substances
  • Never use alone
  • Get your drugs checked
  • Consider prescription alternatives