As B.C.’s toxic drug crisis drags on, the latest report from the BC Coroners Service shows that illicit drugs claimed the lives of nearly 600 people in the first three months of 2023, including 177 newly reported lives lost in February, followed by 197 in March.
The 596 total deaths within the three month period is the worst in recorded history, and puts the province on track for its worst year since the start of the toxic drug public health emergency in 2016. Last year, Merritt had among the highest rates of toxic drugs deaths in the province, along with Vancouver, Terrace, Hope, and Prince George.
While numbers for this year are not yet available, 11 people died from toxic drugs in Merritt in 2022. The province recently commemorated the anniversary of the start of the public health crisis, which is increasing in severity.
“On April 14, we once again observed the anniversary of the longest public-health emergency in our province’s history,” said Lisa Lapointe, the province’s chief coroner. “Since the emergency was first declared, more than 11,000 people have lost their lives due to the unregulated drug supply. This is a crisis of incomprehensible scale, and I extend my deepest condolences to everyone who has experienced the loss of someone they loved.”
Along with the decriminalization of some drugs in limited quantities at the end of January, the provincial government said it is taking steps to reinforce evidence-based treatment options, increase access to safer supply, and implement other essential harm-reduction tools to end the ongoing crisis.
Drug-checking services and overdose prevention sites have become more common across the province, including in the Nicola Valley. ASK Wellness Society offers drug checking services at their downtown Quilchena Avenue location. Only two deaths have taken place at overdose prevention sites in B.C., one in 2022, and one this year.
“Recommendations made by multidisciplinary experts on two Coroners Service Death Review Panels and the Province’s Select Standing Committee on Health into the crisis support the urgent implementation of a safe, regulated supply of substances for those at risk of serious harm or death, as well as provincial standards for the provision of evidence-based treatment and recovery services, along with requirements for reporting outcomes,” added Lapointe.
“There should not be a dichotomy between access to life-saving safer supply and access to life-saving treatment options. Tens of thousands of British Columbians remain at risk of dying from toxic drugs and we continue to experience the tragedy of six people dying every single day, as we have for the past two years.”
In 2023, 71 percent of those dying were age 30 to 59, and 77 percent were male. Last year, fentanyl was detected in 86 percent of all deaths, while so far this year, it has been present in 78 percent of cases.