Premier David Eby says B.C. remains in the clutches of the public health crisis caused by unregulated drugs.
He made this comment Monday (June 19) after the BC Coroners Service released the May 2023 figures of suspected deaths caused by unregulated drugs. They show 176 people lost their lives, a decrease of 19 per cent compared to April 2023 and a decrease of 16 per cent compared to May 2022.
But the five-month total for 2023 — 1,018 — is up compared to the corresponding figures for the same period in 2022 — (989) and 2021 (896) to reach the highest level since the declaration of a public health emergency in April 2016.
At least 12,264 British Columbians have died since in connection to unregulated drugs. Unregulated drug toxicity has become the leading cause of death among British Columbians aged 10 to 59, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural disease combined, according to BC Coroners Service.
“The numbers to me reflect that we’re still very much in the grips of a public health crisis,” Eby said during an unrelated event in Burnaby. “Too many families, too many British Columbians are being directly affected, losing a loved one or being injured profoundly.
“We obviously have a lot of work ahead of us…to deal with this crisis,” he said. “I share the anxiety of many people.”
Vancouver, Surrey and Greater Victoria have so far seen the highest numbers of deaths in 2023 with almost 8 out of 10 being male and seven out of 10 being between the ages of 30 and 59.
Eby pointed to various efforts underway to deal with unregulated drug toxicity, including efforts to help young people. A separate BC Coroners Service report looked into unregulated drug toxicity death among youth between 2017 and 2022.It shows 10,453 unregulated drug toxicity deaths with 142 deaths (1.4 per cent) involving youth under 19 years, ranking as the leading cause of unnatural deaths among youth between 2017-2022 with 24 deaths per year.
This annual average is more than triple the average number of deaths between 2012 and 2016.
“This ongoing public-health emergency is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges this province has faced,” Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions said. “We won’t stop working until we have an integrated system of mental health and addictions services in place to help British Columbians of all ages get the support they need and deserve.”
The youth-related report as well as the figures for May 2023 triggered criticism from both BC United as well as BC Greens.
Elenore Sturko, BC United Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Addiction and Recovery, said the report makes it clear the NDP government is failing children in B.C.
“As youth deaths have increased, the NDP’s response to this crisis has failed, especially considering 73 per cent of youths who died were receiving government care at the time of their death,” Sturko said. “The lack of urgency from David Eby’s NDP government has been on clear display with less than half of the promised youth treatment beds delivered and promised stabilization care legislation walked back earlier this year.”
BC Coroners Service said in its report that 73 per cent of youth who died of unregulated drug toxicity had received services through the Ministry of Children and Family Development at some point, although it is not clear when and to what measure.
BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau also seized on this point.
“The government needs to take a serious look at the ways in which MCFD practices are failing to serve the needs of children and families,” she said.
The youth report also found hydromorphone among 12 youth who died between 2017 and 2022. BC United tried to a draw link between the increased presence of hydromorphone and the introduction of safe supply in 2021.
From 2017 to 2019, hydromorphone, an opioid, was present in zero toxicity deaths among youth.
“In 2020, the drug was found in five per cent of all youth drug toxicity deaths and has risen sharply each subsequent year,” BC United said in a release. “In 2022, hydromorphone was detected in more than one-fifth of all youth drug toxicity deaths.”
BC Coroners Service said in 8 of the 12 youth deaths involving hydromorphone, the concentration “was low and unlikely to have contributed significantly to the death.”
The report also points out that at least one other substance contributing to death was detected in all 12 cases. Hydromorphone can also appear in the body as a metabolite of morphine, codeine or hydrocodone. In other words, it is hard to tell from where the hydromorphone came.
The BC Greens criticized both NDP and BC United. If the New Democrats have failed to address this crisis with the required urgency, BC United has politicized it by raising fears about safe supply, Furstenau said, adding that many conditions today go back to the early 2002 when the BC Liberals cut social programs.
“We are now downstream from those decisions and seeing the outcomes,” she said.
Eby, meanwhile, signalled no immediate change to the safe supply program. Public health officer Bonnie Henry has promised to review the program.