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Ahead of coroner change, B.C. premier stands firm against regulated drug supply

B.C. Premier David Eby responded to the retirement announcement of chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, who expressed regrets in not effecting change with her recommendations on the drug overdose crisis.
B.C. Premier David Eby said the province has a lot of work to do in the "recovery space."

B.C. Premier David Eby said Thursday that retiring chief coroner Lisa Lapointe provided “remarkable” service to the province; however, he remains steadfast that his government does not support her core recommendation of a regulated drug supply to mitigate the ongoing overdose public emergency.

“Lisa did remarkable service for the province as coroner and I’m really grateful for the time she spent, especially with grieving families and especially on the toxic drug overdose crisis we’re in,” Eby told Glacier Media following a speech to the BC Chamber of Commerce at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel Thursday.

While thankful, Eby acknowledged and maintained his government’s position to Lapointe’s core recommendation that illicit drugs be regulated and supplied in a non-prescribed manner, as an emergency measure.

“We take her recommendations very seriously not just in this sector but generally,” said Eby.

“We’ve been pretty clear though about that core recommendation she made and responding to that we have a lot of work to do in recovery space; we’re currently leading Canada in our efforts to keep people alive to destigmatize people struggling with addiction, to get them out of the criminal justice system and into the hospitals and into the health-care system,” said Eby, who is otherwise committed to increasing recovery bed numbers in the province.

Between 2016 and 2023, at least 13,000 people have died from drug overdoses, according to the Nov. 1 death review panel report to the chief coroner of B.C., which recently noted overdoses are the leading cause of death in B.C. for those ages 10 to 59.

“The panel reaffirms the need for a comprehensive and timely approach to the crisis and recognizes that, in the short term, the fastest way to reduce deaths is to reduce dependence on the unregulated toxic drug supply for people who use drugs. This requires creating access to quality-controlled, regulated supply of drugs for people at risk of dying,” the report stated.

The panel report received contributions from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who supports "safer supply."

In response last month, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside eschewed such a recommendation, stating, “I cannot accept the primary recommendation of this report to pursue a non-prescriber model of safer supply.”

Lapointe exits service a month after minister's letter

On Wednesday, Lapointe announced she would not seek re-appointment after having initially been appointed as chief coroner in 2011.

Lapointe issued a statement wherein she lamented the direction of the public health emergency declared in 2016.

“Like so many others, our agency has been forever altered by the toxic drug public health emergency that continues to take the lives of people of all ages in communities throughout B.C., and it deeply saddens me that we have been unable to influence the essential change necessary to reduce the tragic impacts of toxic drugs on so many thousands of our family members, friends and colleagues across the province,” said Lapointe.

“The measures recommended by the expert members of Coroners Service death review panels are essential to ending this crisis and I will continue to support those recommendations post retirement,” said Lapointe.

On Nov. 29, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix broadly affirmed his support for Henry's recommendations and how the BC NDP government makes health-care decisions. Dix was questioned in the B.C. legislature by Conservative Party of B.C. leader John Rustad as to why health-care workers require COVID-19 vaccines (as Henry recommends).

“We democratically decided that on health-care decisions, on medical decisions and public health, we would take the lead of the provincial health officer,” Dix said.

“The member (Rustad) apparently believes that he is more qualified to do that,” said Dix.

It's unclear why the BC NDP government would not accept Henry's recommendations on drug supply. Eby only fielded one question and was not scheduled to address media at the chamber event.

Appointment of new coroner will be made by BC Public Service

Meanwhile, Lapointe’s term officially ends on Feb. 18, 2024. Thereafter a new chief coroner will be chosen by the Lieutenant Governor after what’s called a “merits-based process.”

The process is a regulated and non-partisan one that will be initiated by the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth told Glacier Media he does not have any input into the appointment, nor would the BC NDP cabinet.

Lapointe noted her role was to investigate deaths and conduct inquests in an “impartial, objective and compassionate” manner.

She also touched on the fundamental roots of a coroner’s job as well.

“The work of a coroner is a challenging one, investigating the circumstances of deaths to provide information and assistance to families and communities devastated by the sudden loss of their loved ones.

“For every tragic loss, the coroner must consider whether there is an opportunity to prevent similar deaths in the future. In this way, the role of the coroner, which may seem a bleak one, provides an opportunity to advance meaningful change. This is the most silver of linings in often very dark clouds.”

B.C. faces brunt of deaths across North America

As of this year, B.C. is, on average, the worst jurisdiction in North America in terms of overdose deaths, largely attributable to illicit drugs poisoned by fentanyl.

In B.C. this year to Nov. 1, 2,039 people have died from an overdose from an illicit and unregulated drug. This is a rate of 45.3 people per 100,000 residents. Last year was a record rate of 44.8, whereas in 2013 the rate was 7.2. Canada's 2023 death rate is 20.3 people per 100,000, according to Health Canada. In America, the rate, including prescription medications, was 32.5 people per 100,000 residents in 2021, according to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control

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