The province has released its latest preliminary toxic drugs deaths report, which showed that at least 211 individuals los their lives to B.C.’s toxic drug supply in January. The high number is the eighth time in 16 months that more than 200 people have died due to toxic drugs in the province, with 211 deaths equating to 6.8 lives lost per day.

In the past two years, Merritt had among the highest rates of toxic drug deaths by Local Health area, spiking from 17 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020 to 119.3 in 2021, and 92.6 in 2022. While it remains to be seen what 2023 will bring, the province said in a press release that it believes the time is now to act and break the stigma around drug use. 

“Once again, our agency is reporting on preventable losses of life in heart-breaking numbers,” said Lisa Lapointe, the province’s chief coroner. 

“We are nearing the seventh anniversary of the declaration of the public-health emergency into substance-related harms, and the drug-poisoning crisis continues to cost lives and communities at an unprecedented rate. Toxic drugs pose a constant and ever-present danger to anyone who uses drugs. Anyone using any substance purchased on the unregulated illicit drug market is at risk of serious harm or death.”

At least 11,195 lives have been lost since April 2016, when the province declared a illicit drug toxicity public-health emergency. Drug toxicity spiked suddenly that year, when fentanyl flooded the drug market, contaminating the supply with the drug. Fentanyl can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine. The province estimated that more than 80,000 people in B.C. struggle with an opioid use disorder, and that thousands of others regularly use stimulants such as cocaine.

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.

“We know that in order to connect people to treatment and recovery, we must first keep them alive,” said Jennifer Whiteside, B.C’s minister of mental health and addictions.

“That’s why we are continuing to invest and expand harm-reduction measures throughout the province to separate people from the toxic, unpredictable illicit drug supply. This year’s budget commits $184 million to support our response to toxic drugs, including adding more options for safe prescription alternatives, like diacetylmorphine.”

Only two deaths have been recorded at overdose prevention sites during the toxic drug crisis, including one in January of this year, and one in 2022. In 2021, fentanyl was found to be present in 84.4 per cent of all illicit drug toxicity deaths, while cocaine was present in 44 per cent, and meth/amphetamines was found in 40.8 per cent. Whiteside noted that access to safe prescription alternatives is vital in fighting the crisis.