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B.C. lost 195 people in May to the toxic drug supply

A new report from the BC Coroners Service says etizolam was found in 40% of overdose deaths from July 2020 to May 2022. It does not respond to naloxone thus creating "live-saving challenges for first responders."
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe looks on during a press conference in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019.

The highest number of deaths ever recorded in the month of May due to unintentional illicit drug toxicity has been reported by the BC Coroners Service.

The total of 195 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths is a record for May and represents a 13% increase over the number of deaths in May 2021 (172) as well as a 20% increase from the number of deaths occurring in April 2022 (162), the coroner stated a report July 14.

This year, to May 31, 940 people have died from such poisonings, bringing the death rate per 100,000 people to 42.9, nearly as much as the record rate of 43.6 in 2021 when 2,265 people died.

In terms of what regions are most affected in 2022, Vancouver has seen the most deaths (222) and the highest rate (75.2). Rates are especially high in the Thompson Cariboo (62.9), Northwest health service area (61.6) and Northern Interior (55.8).

Communities experiencing worse rates (with more than 10 deaths in 2022) than Vancouver include: Mission, Port Alberni, Prince George, Kamloops and Penticton.

Most deaths (57%) are taking place in private residences whereas 13.9% occur outside.

The coroner also outlined some of the developing trends, including a rise in older people dying and the types of drugs causing toxicity in the supply of street drugs.

In 2022, 73% of those dying were aged 30 to 59, and 76% were male, according to the report. However, the proportion of deaths that are 50+ years of age has steadily increased year after year for the past six years.

The coroner stated the detection rate of benzodiazepines has rapidly increased from 15% of samples in July 2020 to 52% of samples in January 2022. The rate has since decreased to 32% in May 2022.

And, between July 2020 and May 2022, etizolam was found in 40% of illicit drug toxicity deaths that have undergone expedited toxicological testing. Etizolam is a benzodiazepine analogue and non-opioid sedative that does not respond to naloxone (an overdose-reversing drug) thus creating "life-saving challenges for first responders," said the coroner.

Preliminary data suggests that the proportion of illicit drug toxicity deaths for which illicit fentanyl was detected (alone or in combination with other drugs) was approximately 83% in 2022 and 86% in 2021.

“No deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites,” said the coroner, and “there is no indication that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths.”

Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, issued a statement following the report’s public release. She committed, again, to reducing toxicity in the drug supply.

"Part of that work includes building a comprehensive and seamless continuum of mental health and addictions care that works for all British Columbians. Our government is urgently working to build and fund that system — a system that includes treatment and recovery options in every part of B.C., such as the new sobering and assessment centre in Prince George, which will open in the fall, and the new Rapid Access to Addiction Care Clinic that just opened in Abbotsford.

"We are deepening our investment in people and innovative solutions to turn this crisis around, such as leading the country on prescribed safe supply and decriminalizing people who use drugs. We know there is much more to do, and we won't stop working until we finally put an end to this terrible crisis,” stated Malcolmson.

The full report can be viewed online.

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