1,489 suspected illicit drug overdose deaths in BC in 2018

Highest number of illicit drug overdose deaths: Vancouver (382), Surrey (210), Victoria (94)


THE number of British Columbians dying from illicit drug overdoses plateaued in 2018, despite significant efforts from groups around the province to prevent deaths.

The BC Coroners Service reports there were 1,489 suspected illicit drug overdose deaths in 2018, just over the total of overdose deaths seen in 2017. It is likely the number of these deaths for 2018 will increase as investigations conclude.

“Families and communities across the province are losing friends, neighbours and loved ones to illicit overdoses at an alarming rate. The illicit drug supply is unpredictable and unmanageable, and fentanyl is now implicated in 86% of overdose deaths,” said Lisa Lapointe, Chief Coroner, BC Coroners Service. “The almost 1,500 deaths in B.C. in 2018 due to illicit drug overdoses far outweigh the numbers of people dying from motor vehicle incidents, homicides and suicides combined. Innovative and evidence-based approaches are necessary if we want to effect meaningful change and stop the dying. We need to be prepared to do things differently to save lives.”

A continuing trend highlighted in the report is that middle-aged men are overrepresented, with 80% of suspected overdose deaths involving males and 71% involving people aged 30 to 59. Also, 86% of deaths continue to occur indoors, with more people dying on the days immediately following the issuance of income assistance payments than all other days in the year.

“As this emergency continues, we need options to provide people at risk of overdose with low-barrier access to a regulated supply of opioids, and we need to connect people who use drugs with the supports they need rather than sending them to the criminal justice system,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer. “If we’re going to turn the corner on this complex crisis, we need to find the ways to provide safer alternatives to the unregulated and highly-toxic drug supply and to end the stigma associated with criminalization of people who use drugs.”

Dr. Evan Wood, Executive Director with the BC Centre on Substance Use, recommends a number of upstream solutions, including improved addiction training to support prevention and treatment. He also points to the need for policy changes to end prohibition, which creates the circumstances for the fentanyl market and continues to stigmatize substance use.

“This latest report confirms what those on the frontline already know all too well: this crisis is not slowing down,” said Wood. “If we’re going to stop overdoses from happening, we urgently need to end the harms caused by prohibition while also implementing upstream responses that address the serious health and social consequences of untreated addiction.”

“Thousands upon thousands of family members are grieving today because of the preventable deaths of their children,” said Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm. “We have made some progress by implementing harm reduction measures. Many more people would be dead if not for supervised consumption sites and naloxone. But it is time to step up and stop the deaths by implementing the evidence-based solutions. This requires the political will, funding and a courageous change in direction. We already have the knowledge to end the biggest health crisis this country has ever seen.”


Quick Facts:

* There was at least one illicit drug overdose death in 354 of the 365 days of 2018.

* The three townships with the highest number of illicit drug overdose deaths in 2018 were Vancouver (382), Surrey (210) and Victoria (94).

* Kelowna saw a decrease from 75 overdose deaths in 2017 to 55 in 2018, while Prince George (24 in 2017 and 46 in 2018), Kamloops (38 in 2017 and 48 in 2018) and Chilliwack (22 in 2017 and 35 in 2018) saw increases in the year.

* Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health reported the highest number of illicit drug overdose deaths (501 and 434 respectively), while Vancouver Coastal Health and Northern Health reported the highest rate of overdose deaths (36 per 100,000 individuals and 31 per 100,000 individuals respectively).

* There were no deaths at supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites.


IN response, Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, released the following statement:

“My heart goes out to every family that has lost a loved one to overdose. This crisis truly shows us that people from all walks of life – professionals, people living in poverty, tradespeople and many other sectors – are all affected by addiction.

“The Province’s commitment is stronger than ever to work every single day with all of our partners to escalate our response so we can save more lives. We can never lose sight of the fact that the overdose crisis represents real people – and real families – from communities throughout B.C.

“By the end of this day, four people will die from an overdose in British Columbia. Most of these people will die alone – with no one beside them, no one to call for help. Each life lost is an unspeakable tragedy.

“We are using every possible available tool to save lives, including a first-in-Canada pilot project at the St. Paul’s Hospital emergency department that provides people who have survived an overdose with take-home doses of suboxone and a well-defined treatment plan. This helps to stabilize people with opioid use disorder, ensuring they are connected to a safe alternative to toxic street drugs.

“We estimate our strategies have averted 4,700 deaths due to life-saving supports in place around the province. This includes scaled-up distribution of naloxone, more overdose prevention sites and better access to opioid agonist treatment.

“As we look to the year ahead, we will continue to work closely with our partners to save lives and increase access to mental-health and addictions services and supports. We are working with, engaging with and listening to the valuable advice of people with lived experience and of all those on the frontlines.

“I’d like to thank the BC Coroners Service for this important work. These reports are critical in helping us understand this crisis, in which health authorities and cities are most impacted, and how we can best reach out to those in need.

“I want to acknowledge the commitment and heroic efforts of those who are on the frontlines saving lives and connecting people to treatment and social supports. To all of the community workers, first responders, health-care professionals, peers and families – I applaud you for your dedication to helping British Columbians at a time in their lives when they need it most.

“I know that by continuing to work together, we will turn the tide on this crisis for people and families throughout British Columbia.”