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Prince George saw seven illicit drug deaths in February

B.C. sees about 6.2 deaths per day due to toxic drug supply
Emergency crews respond to an overdose. File photo by Dan Toulgoet

The province had its deadliest February on record for illicit drug overdose deaths, according to the monthly BC Coroners Service report.

In February 2022, there were 174 suspected drug toxicity deaths which equates to about 6.2 deaths per day. Northern Health saw 13 of those deaths during the month of February with seven occurring in Prince George.

So far in 2022, Northern Health has had 32 illicit drug overdose deaths with 16 of them occurring in Prince George.

Also by Health Authority, in 2022, the highest rates were in Northern Health (63 deaths per 100,000 individuals) followed by Vancouver Coastal Health (53 per 100,000).

Overall, the rate in BC is 44 deaths per 100,000 individuals in 2022.

"As we approach the sixth anniversary of the declaration of the public-health emergency into substance-related harms, we are continuing to lose members of our communities at an unprecedented and terrifying rate," said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner.

"The deaths of another 174 B.C. residents, so many of them young and middle-aged men with years of life ahead of them, is yet another reminder that urgent action is needed on a provincewide scale. I extend my deepest sympathy to the many families, friends and communities who are grieving the loss of a loved one."

February 2022 is the 17th consecutive month in which more than 150 lives were lost to illicit drugs in B.C.

Notably, while 74 per cent of decedents in 2022 were between 30 and 59 years of age, six of the lives lost in February were under the age of 19 after zero such deaths were reported in January.

BC Coroners Service said preliminary toxicological results in early 2022 provide further evidence of the inconsistency and volatility of the illicit drug supply.

Fentanyl continues to be the predominant substance found in post-mortem testing. Alarmingly, the toxicity of fentanyl is growing with February being the third consecutive month in which more than 20 per cent of fentanyl-positive test results had concentrations greater than 50 micrograms per litre.

Additionally, between July 2020 and February 2022, etizolam was detected in 41 per cent of expedited testing results. This benzodiazepine analogue has a highly sedating effect that cannot be reversed by naloxone and, as a result, its presence creates significant life-saving challenges for first responders.

BC Coroners Service asserts there continues to be no evidence that prescribed safer supply or diverted prescription opioids are contributing to the illicit-drug crisis in the province.

"I recognize that the concept of safer supply is difficult for some to understand given the many decades of a punitive, enforcement-based approach to substance use," Lapointe said.

"However, unless we act quickly to provide a safe, regulated source of the drugs people are using in every community across our province, people we love will continue to be vulnerable to the profit-driven, chaotic illicit drug market. Safer supply, along with decriminalizing possession of drugs for personal use, reducing stigma and building an evidence-based system of treatment and recovery are critical components for reducing the terrible harms and fatal consequences of the toxic illicit drug market."

The toxic drug supply has claimed the lives of 9,410 British Columbians since January 2016.