B.C. sets grim record with 2,511 toxic drug deaths in 2023

Health Fitness

The B.C. Coroners Service says there were more than 2,500 suspected illicit drug deaths in the province last year, the highest annual number recorded.

In announcing the grim number, B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe renewed her plea for an expansion of safer supply and a “systems change” that treats substance use as a health issue, not a criminal problem.

“More people than ever are dying,” said Lapointe in her final public address before retiring next month.

“Each day, coroners across B.C. go into communities and retrieve the bodies of the dead. More than 2,500 families who lost a loved one this year didn’t know they’d be among the statistics. How many more will join these statistics next year?”

The 2,511 suspected illicit drug deaths recorded last year equates to an average of nearly seven per day, marking a five per cent increase compared with the previous high of 2,383 deaths recorded in 2022. 

According to the B.C. Coroner Service’s 2023 data: 

  • Of those who died, 77 per cent were male.
  • 70 per cent were aged 30 to 59. 
  • Fentanyl was detected in 85.3 per cent of toxic drug death investigations, followed by meth and amphetamines at 46.9 per cent, and benzodiazepines at 40.2 per cent. 
  • Vancouver, Surrey, and Greater Victoria had the highest number of deaths.
  • Northern Health was the region with the highest rate of deaths at 67 per 100,000 people.
  • 80 per cent of the unregulated drug deaths occurred inside.
  • Smoking was the most common form of consumption at 65 per cent, compared to injection and snorting, both at 14 per cent.
  • One death occurred at an overdose prevention site.

On social media, B.C. United leader Kevin Falcon said the 2,511 deaths are an indictment of the B.C. NDP’s policies, including the “reckless decriminalization” of small amounts of certain illicit drugs.  

Lapointe said Wednesday that “decriminalization is not responsible for these deaths, illicit fentanyl is.” 

Year-by-year comparison of toxic drug deaths in B.C. (B.C. Coroners Service)

She said almost 14,000 people have died since the province declared toxic drugs a public health emergency in April 2016. 

An estimated 225,000 people in B.C. use unregulated drugs, according to Lapointe. Of those, 100,000 have an opioid disorder. 

“Given the unpredictability of illicit drugs, each of these 225,000 people is at risk of death,” she said.

Instead of “watching people die by the thousands,” Lapointe restated her calls for a meaningful continuum of care, including expanded harm reduction services like safer supply in addition to evidence-based accessible treatment and recovery programs.

“What if, instead of continuing to revert to policing and punishing in the guise of public safety, we focused instead on the underlying issues: that people use substances or become dependent on substances because of pain, trauma, physical or mental health challenges,” she said.

A recent coroners service death review panel report that recommended providing controlled drugs to people without prescriptions was rejected by B.C.’s mental health and addictions minister this past November.  

The report said about 5,000 people have access to provincially-regulated prescribed safer supply.

Advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm said politicians need to stop playing politics with the toxic drug crisis and listen to experts. 

“The B.C. NDP, B.C. United and the B.C. Conservative parties have all demonstrated a shocking lack of understanding of substance use and addiction,” said the group in an emailed statement.

“Courageous and bold action must be taken, and instead politicians posture for their own gains.”

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