B.C. sees record-setting number of January deaths related to illicit drug toxicity

Record month for overdoses

Following a record-breaking year for overdoses in B.C. in 2020, the BC Coroners Service has reported 165 suspected illicit drug toxicity fatalities in January 2021, making it the largest number of lives ever lost in the first month of a calendar year.

"These figures are heartbreaking, both in scale and for the number of families who are grieving the loss of a loved one," says chief coroner for the BC Coroners Service Lisa Lapointe.

"In the fifth year of this public health emergency, there is virtually no community in the province that hasn't been touched by this devastating loss of life.”

On average, 5.3 lives were lost each day in January as a result of the province’s toxic drug supply. This translates to a death rate of 38.1 per 100,000 residents.

January 2021 also marks the 10th consecutive month where more than 100 deaths were related to suspected illicit drug toxicity.

For January 2021, there were four drug toxicity deaths in Kelowna and Vernon with one death in Kamloops.

Nearly one-in-five suspected deaths (18 per cent) in January noted extreme levels of fentanyl, greater than 50 micrograms per litre. This is the largest number recorded to date.

In addition to this, there were 14 deaths related to carfentanil - a more lethal analogue of fentanyl. This is the largest monthly figure since May 2019.

The report also suggests an increase in the use of unprescribed benzodiazepines and its analogues, including etizolam. Since July 2020, etizolam has been linked to 31 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths. In January, benzodiazepines and its analogues were detected in 49 per cent of all samples tested.

Having etizolam and fentanyl together increases the chance of overdose because of the combined respiratory depressant effects. It’s also important to note that etizolam is not licensed in Canada.

"We're particularly concerned about the toxicity of the drugs detected in many of the deaths recorded in January," says Lapointe. "The findings suggest that the already unstable drug supply in B.C. is becoming even deadlier, underscoring the urgent need for supervised consumption options, prescribing for safe supply, and accessible treatment and recovery services.”

No deaths were reported at supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites.

The 165 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in January show a 104 per cent increase over the deaths in January 2020 where 81 deaths were linked to illicit drugs.

Read the full report from the BC Coroners Service here.

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