Illicit drugs are taking a deadly toll in B.C.

With 175 fatal overdoses in July, more people are dying from B.C.’s unsafe drug supply than COVID-19, homicides, vehicle crashes, and suicides combined.

Last month’s death toll marks a 136-percent jump compared to last July.

Shari Dunnet is the project coordinator for the Comox Valley Community Action Team (CAT), a local group working to address the drug toxicity crisis.

She calls July’s numbers “horrifying.”

“It’s another grim report. We’ve had three months in a row, now, with numbers of (overdose deaths) over 170 each month, which is the highest ever recorded in B.C. ‘s history,” Dunnet said. 

“Clearly the pandemic and the isolation that’s happened, the reduction in services, and so-on has made a very large impact, as well as the toxic drug supply.”

Dunnet says the drug supply is “far more dangerous” than it was at the beginning of the year. 

“I believe it’s something like four times the number of deaths due to overdose at this point than to COVID since the pandemic began, so it’s a very, very serious situation.”

She added that they’re working to get information out, especially about the toxic drug supply, adding that it’s not the same playing field as it was prior to the pandemic.

“We’ve been promoting safer supply, that’s something that definitely can make a difference, if people through a prescriber can get onto a substance that is not cut with all those dangerous substances, it’s just a huge impact.”

Dunnet said seeing the crisis more as a health issue than a criminal issue will help erase the stigma.

“That’s definitely happening right across the country as well as in B.C.,” she added. “Our premier has actually formally asked for decriminalization with the federal government which is a remarkable step. So certainly, that’s huge.”

She said addiction and substance use often comes out of trauma that is unresolved and is not just because someone wants to “have to have a good time.”

“It’s also about educating the public to not carry that stigma and to see people with dignity, and see people who are perhaps where they are because of traumas that have happened in their life. There are lots of things people can do to become more aware and so that’s really our role, to try to promote that awareness and create more safety all the way around for everyone and create more dignity.”

There are a number of CATs across the province and the one in the Comox Valley includes physicians, emergency services workers, and family members, as well as community-based and Indigenous organizations.

“It’s quite a broad spectrum of folks that really come into this field of substance use and creating more safety in the community all the way around.”

Since forming in January, the Comox Valley team has brought on several people with lived and living experience (a.k.a. peers) to help advise them.

“They are absolutely the most important people there because they really know what’s going on and they really know what this is like from a lived place, and are able to give advice and help us be more connected and more grounded, and more in reality to what’s happening.” 

The group is planning to host an event on Aug. 31, which is international overdose awareness day.