News / Vancouver

914 overdose deaths in British Columbia in 2016

Fentanyl-fueled overdose crisis in British Columbia escalates with another 142 deaths in December, for a total number of 914 deaths in 2016.

Canada should declare overdose deaths a national health emergency, said British Columbia Health Minister Terry Lake.

Lake made the comment while reeling from the release of the province’s year-end illicit drug overdose statistics by chief coroner Lisa Lapointe on Wednesday.

A record-high 142 people died of overdoses in December, bringing the province’s 2016 total to a staggering and tragic 914 deaths.

Lake says the province has taken unprecedented measures to try to address the crisis, including the opening of 20 overdose prevention sites in December, but the prevalence of fentanyl and now the even more dangerous carfentanil in street drugs has continued to push the death rate up.

“Looking at the September numbers, we thought we turned the corner, we really did. Then with the November numbers it was just like a whole different chapter in this crisis,” said Lake. “That’s why I think we need a more comprehensive approach, because we can’t let this crisis just pass without some change, and that is change that needs to happen across the country, not just in B.C. I think there is great evidence to suggest that the federal government should declare a federal public health emergency.”

Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall supported a decriminalized European model that allows for drugs users to be prescribed heroin, or other drugs, to stabilize their addiction and normalize their lives.

“These treatments, while very controversial in North America, have proven to work,” he said. “They improve physical and mental health and social functioning and they’re cost effective and can take people out of illegal drug markets.”

The crisis unfolding in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada should also spark debate about how drugs are regulated in the country, Kendall said.

“Such dialogue may not be easy, but it is necessary and it will be life-saving.”

In the meantime, Lapointe is urging people dependent on drugs to access supervised services and not use alone.

All recreational or experimental drugs users are being told avoid using drugs altogether.

“Given the increasing risk of contaminated drugs and the growing number of deaths … the risks are simply unmanageable. This is a crisis and is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.”

Lake said almost 100 overdoses were reversed at provincially-sanctioned overdose prevention sites since they started opening last month.

Had it not been for those sites, and other initiatives in response to the crisis, “many, many more lives would have been lost,” Lake said.

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