In 2022, British Columbia saw its second deadliest year on record since the start of the province’s drug toxicity public health emergency in April 2016. A total of 2,272 people lost their lives due to B.C.’s toxic drug supply during the year, with 11 being in the City of Merritt.
Last year, 70 percent of those dying were aged 30 to 59, and 79 percent of them were male. The province said in a press release that by Local Health Area in 2022, the highest rates were in Vancouver – Centre North, Terrace, Merritt, Hope, and Prince George. Only one of the reported deaths for 2022 in the province was at an overdose prevention site. The province hopes people will utilize these sorts of harm reduction measures following the decriminalization of some drugs in limited quantities on January 31, 2023, for a three year trial.
“British Columbians across the province are continuing to experience tremendous harm and loss as a result of the province’s toxic illicit drug supply,” said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner.
“Our province continues to lose an average of six lives every day, and many more people experience serious health consequences as a result of the unpredictable, unregulated drug supply. Death due to drug toxicity remains the leading cause of unnatural death in British Columbia, and is second only to cancers in terms of years of life lost.”
More than 11,171 deaths have been attributed to illicit drug toxicity since April 2016. The province said that at this time, analysis of post-mortem toxicology results show no indication that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths, regionally or provincially. The effect of the decriminalization of certain illicit drugs on toxic drug death numbers is still unknown as B.C. begins its three year trial of a first in the country exemption from Health Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
First Nations health officials say that the toxic drug crisis in B.C. is disproportionately affecting Indigenous people in the province, namely First Nations women. Dr. Nel Wieman, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) said in a press conference that while decriminalization is a step in the right direction, more action needs to be taken to address inequities.
“First Nations people continue to be disproportionately impacted by the ongoing toxic drug crisis in British Columbia. Given that we are nearing the end of the seventh year of a provincewide state of emergency on illicit toxic drugs, it is difficult to accept that more First Nations people in B.C. have died from illicit toxic drug poisonings than from COVID-19,” said Wieman.
“While there is no doubt that this tragic outcome is due in part to First Nations people experiencing stereotyping, racism and discrimination in many different forms, it also leads one to consider whether or not this pressing issue is receiving the level of priority it deserves. While we support the government’s recent steps toward decriminalization, it is abundantly clear that there is still much more that can and must be done. The lives of First Nations people in B.C. depend on it!”
The province is hopeful their move to decriminalize is a first step in addressing this issue, in addition to other support around safe supply, overdose prevention sites, and increased treatment options for those struggling with addictions. Due to B.C.’s toxic drug supply, those using drugs are urged by the province to take extra precautions, including getting their drugs tested or identified before using.
A number of social services in the Nicola Valley offer drug testing and identification, a service the province hopes users will utilize as a part of harm reduction efforts. The Nicola Valley Shelter and Support Society’s Merritt Shelter on Voght Street offers take-home fentanyl test strips, as well as on site test strips. Ask Wellness’s downtown office on Quilchena Avenue uses Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to test drugs for their contents. Testing is available on site on select days, but samples can be dropped off to be mailed for testing.
For harm reduction information, visit the BC Centre for Disease Control’s (BCCDC) website at www.towardtheheart.com.