Access to a safer supply of drugs and more care to support substance users is the key to reducing the number of illicit drug-related deaths in British Columbia, a new report has found.
The report, released by a panel of experts convened by the BC Coroners Service, looked at the circumstances around 6,007 deaths from illicit drugs toxicity between Aug. 1, 2017, and July 31, 2021.
Called the BC Coroners Service Death Review Panel: A Review of Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths, the report reveals that the primary cause of these deaths was “the increasingly toxic and unpredictable illicit drug supply in the province.” It also said, “the current drug policy framework of prohibition is forcing substance users to access the unregulated market, leading to increased numbers of substance-related emergencies and deaths.”
According to the report, illicit drug toxicity is still the leading cause of “unnatural death” in the province, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, motor vehicle incidents, drownings and fire-related deaths combined.
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“This report includes realistic, actionable recommendations that the panel believes will reduce the number of people dying due to toxic, illicit drugs in our province,” said Michael Egilson, death review panel chair.
“We recognize that many of the timelines in the report are aggressive, but COVID-19 has demonstrated how swiftly policy-makers can act when lives are at stake and we know that every month of inaction equates to hundreds more lives lost.”
The three recommendations from the report say a safer drug supply is needed first, followed by the development of a 30/60/90-day Illicit Drug Toxicity Action Plan that includes monitoring, and the establishment of an “evidence-based continuum of care.”
B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe has forwarded each of the recommendations to the relevant ministries and organizations.
“We know that everyone who dies because of drug toxicity leaves behind family, friends and communities who grieve their loss,” Lapointe said in a release. “As we approach the sixth anniversary of the declaration of the public-health emergency into substance-related harms, co-ordinated, urgent action is needed to reduce the devastation illicit drugs have inflicted on so many people in our province. This report, by a panel of subject-matter experts, provides a roadmap. It is my sincere hope that their advice will be actioned.”
In response to the report, Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said the province knows it must do more to combat the illicit toxic drug crisis in B.C.
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“We are making historic investments into mental-health and substance-use services to build a system of care where there wasn’t one in 2017,” she said in a statement. “This work is critical and is well underway.
“We agree that one of the most important actions we can take to save lives is to separate people from the toxic drug supply. That’s why B.C. implemented in 2020, and expanded in 2021, a safer supply program – the first and only province in Canada to do this.”
The federal government regulates controlled drugs and substances and Malcolmson said they are focused on what the provincial government can do going forward.
The coroner will be holding a press conference at 11 a.m. Wednesday. That will be streamed live above.
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