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Toxic drug crisis: Island’s 2021 death toll climbs past 260

New data from the BC Coroners Services finds October broke records for inauspicious reasons. It was the first month ever in which 200 people lost their lives due to drug toxicity – equating to about 6.5 deaths per day.

Illicit drug overdoses claimed 1,782 lives in the first ten months of 2021. That’s the highest number recorded in a calendar year in British Columbia, the Coroners Service says.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe is concerned about the direction of the numbers. “I cannot stress enough how urgent this emergency has become,” she says.

So far this year, Vancouver Island’s death toll has climbed to 265, with the South Island accounting for 120 deaths and the Central and North Island seeing 89 and 56 deaths, respectively. 

“Today is a heart-rending milestone for our province,” Lapointe says. “My thoughts continue to be with every family and community that is grieving the loss of a loved one.”

Lapointe notes a comprehensive plan to ensure access to safe supply is essential. She says the regime shouldn’t be stigmatized but rather decriminalized and health-focused.

According to Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson, the increase in deaths is profound.

“In 2012, illicit fentanyl was present in 5 per cent of the illicit drug toxicity deaths,” she says. “This year, it has been detected in 85 per cent of drug toxicity deaths – this increase is staggering.”

Malcolmson says the province is doing everything it can to turn things around, as she points to expanded substance-use treatment and recovery services. 

“We are also expanding our prescribed safer supply program to help separate more people from the toxic illicit drug supply,” she adds.

Meanwhile, the provincial Liberal Party and BC Green Party say they’ve repeated their calls for the Horgan government to create an all-party committee to deal with the crisis.

Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau, the MLA for Cowichan Valley, says her party has made “multiple calls” this year for an emergency all-party committee to address the toxic drug crisis.

She says they’ve also urged an immediate expansion of the province’s regulated, safe supply of drugs.

And Liberal Mental Health and Addictions critic Trevor Halford says concerted and focused action to attack the problem is needed, not “empty words.”

More stats:

Deaths involving fentanyl accounted for 84 per cent of the total this year.

However, the highly powerful opioid carfentanil has been detected in 152 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2021, more than double the 65 recorded over the same period last year.

Seventy-one per cent of deaths this year alone are from those between the ages of 30-59, with 79 per cent being male.

Provincewide, more than 8,300 people have died due to drug toxicity since officials declared the public health emergency in April 2016.

Don’t use alone:

Officials remind people there are ways to use more safely. Do not use alone. Download the Lifeguard app, buddy up, get your drugs checked, and start with a small amount and go slowly.

Also, keep naloxone close. Find an overdose prevention or safe consumption site near you. For more ways to stay safer, visit:

  • Call 310-6789 for crisis emotional support, information and resources specific to mental health.
  • Call 1 800 784-2433 if you are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including thoughts of suicide.
  • Call 1 800 588-8717 for culturally aware crisis support for Indigenous Peoples in B.C.
  • Call 1 800 663-1441 for alcohol and drug information and referral.
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