Illicit drug overdose toll down in March, but still a record-breaking number of deaths so far in 2022

A person receives a tested supply of cocaine after gathering to remember those who died from a suspected illicit drug overdose, in Vancouver, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A report from British Columbia's coroner service shows that despite a slightly lower death toll in March, 2022 is still shaping up to be the deadliest year in the province's overdose crisis.

Data released Tuesday included that 165 people died of suspected illicit drug toxicity. It's a five per cent decrease from the month before, and from March 2021.

Still, it's the second-highest number of deaths ever recorded for that month, and it represents 5.3 people every day.

Another encouraging trend noted by the coroners service is that the detection rate of benzodiazepines was down 32 per cent in March.

"Benzos" have been increasingly noted in the street supply in B.C., something that is concerning when taking into account that these drugs can block the effects of the overdose antidote naloxone.

A user who's unknowingly taken something that contains benzos may not respond to life-saving efforts involving naloxone, which is used by first responders to revive someone who's overdosed.

Its presence is concerning as it rapidly increased between July 2020, when it was found in 15 per cent of samples, and January 2022, when it was found in 52 per cent.

Another drug officials are watching for is etizolam, a benzodiazepine analogue and sedative that also does not respond to naloxone. The coroners service did not say how March 2022 compared to previous months, but said etizolam has been found in 40 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths over the last two years.

The decrease in deaths in March may provoke cautious optimism in those monitoring or personally affected by the crisis, but because of record-breaking tolls in January and February, the total number of overdose deaths due to street drugs such as cocaine, heroin and fentanyl is still higher than in any other year in B.C.

The current toll, which may increase as death investigations are conducted, is 548 people. That's compared to 535 at this time last year, and a 10-year average of 242 deaths by the end of March.

Looking at the average since a public health crisis was declared over the overdose deaths in B.C., in 2016, the average before this year for the first three months was 355 deaths.

So while there is cause for some optimism, the province is still seeing an unprecedented number of residents dying due to a poisoned street drug supply.

It's easy to just see the numbers, but officials are quick to remind the public that whatever the toll, those are human lives – people who had friends and family members they've left behind, people who had potential but whose lives were cut short.

The latest data shows that so far this year, three-quarters of deaths have been those of people aged 30 to 59. Nearly eight-in-10 were men.

Townships seeing the highest number of deaths this year are among the province's most populous: Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.

But looking at the rate of deaths, Northern Health is still seeing a disproportionate impact. The B.C. Coroners Service said the authority saw 52 deaths per 100,000 individuals so far this year, compared with the provincial rate of 42 per 100,000. Vancouver Coastal Health's rate is also high, at 50 per 100,000.

Specifically, areas being hit hardest this year are Vancouver, Thompson Cariboo, Fraser East, Northern Interior and Northwest.

As is often the case, most people died in private residences (57 per cent) or in social and supportive housing, shelters, hotels and other indoor locations.

Fewer than one-sixth of deaths were outside, in vehicles or parks, on sidewalks or streets, or in other locations.

In a brief statement released after the coroners service data, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson called the update "tragic."

"Every life lost is a tragedy… People who use drugs recreationally and regularly are all at high risk. If you plan to use, whether at home, at a party or event, please stay safer," she said.

To be safer, she said users should consider buddying up, carrying naloxone, downloading the free app called Lifeguard, which connects users with 911 dispatchers if they become unresponsive, or visiting a supervised consumption site.

The province's chief coroner repeatedly pushes for more supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites, noting no deaths have been reported at either.

Additionally, she says a safer supply is needed, and that there is nothing to indicate the handing out of free cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin has any tie to illicit drug deaths.

Lisa Lapointe is adamant that the issue is with the poisoned street supply, and that the best way to save lives is to offer sources other than street dealers.

She's also pushed for more treatment options, and an expansion of access to what is already available.

Malcolmson said, as she often does in her responses to the monthly reports, that the government knows more work needs to be done, and that the province is committed to doing more.

"Almost every week, new mental-health and substance-use supports are added to save lives, yet the terribly toxic street drug supply continues to take lives," she said.