A syringe in the grass.
A syringe in the grass. Credit: vistavision / Flickr

As the province of B.C. enters its seventh year of a public health emergency related to the toxic, unregulated drug supply, more people are dying from unnecessary overdoses than ever.

Since the public health emergency was declared on April 14, 2016, to combat overdose deaths, more than 11,000 people have lost their lives. 

For chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, the number of overdose deaths is “a crisis of incomprehensible scale.”

According to preliminary numbers released by the B.C. Coroners Office, nearly 600 people died in the province from an overdose in the first quarter of 2023.

At least 374 deaths were reported to the Coroners Service between February and March, meaning more than six people died from toxic drugs on any given day in B.C. this year.

There were 177 toxic drug deaths reported in February. March saw the number climb to 197.

Between January and March, 596 people died from overdoses. That is the second-highest total ever recorded in the first quarter of a year, with 599 deaths in the same time period in 2022.

The number of deaths represent a provincewide death rate of 44.1 deaths per 100,000 people.

Data from the province found 2022 to be the deadliest year on record for deaths due to toxic drugs, with 2,314 people losing their lives. 

Overall, the B.C. government has classified unregulated drug toxicity as the leading cause of unnatural death in the province, making up more deaths than homicides, suicides, motor vehicle incidents, drownings and fire-related deaths combined.

The government has also admitted there is no evidence that prescribed safe supply is a factor in the rise of toxic drug deaths.

Politics of safe supply ‘getting worse’

Jean Swanson, a writer, anti-poverty activist and former Vancouver city councillor, called the number of toxic drug supply deaths in 2023 “horrific.”

“There’s a lot of really, really good people that have been trying to fight for the solution, which is safe supply,” she explained in an interview with rabble.ca. “We haven’t got it yet and the politics of it are actually getting worse.”

It is the weaponizing of solutions like safe supply in right-wing politics that Swanson attributes to her loss in the 2022 Vancouver municipal election.

“The right-wing politicians are really using that issue to create a wedge and try and get elected, rather than to try and solve the problem,” Swanson said.

For Swanson, the only thing advocates can do is keep up the pressure.

READ MORE: Drug decriminalization: The sweet spot between legalization and prohibition

Pressure can come in the form of civil disobedience, something Swanson is no stranger to. She was arrested in 2021 for giving out cocaine, heroin and meth outside of the Vancouver Police Department headquarters. The demonstration did not result in charges.

Speaking of law enforcement, Swanson argues the rise in the “pushing police as the answer narrative” has only contributed to the public health emergency.

Without an adequate response, people will continue to die from a toxic drug supply in B.C. As that number grows, so will the amount of people who have known someone or had a family member impacted by the crisis.

“That’s eventually going to happen, probably, to Pierre Poilievre and Danielle Smith,” Swanson said. “I really don’t want to wait that long.”

Comparing the safe supply of drugs with alcohol, Swanson argued there is not much difference between a bar and supervised drug consumption site.

“Liquor is really harmful and is actually responsible for more deaths and sickness than illicit drugs,” she said. “And yet, because it’s regulated and legal, people don’t die from the first sip.”

Anti-safe supply advocates are ‘pro-drug dealer’

For Garth Mullins, host of the Crackdown podcast and board member of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the political will to bring the number of overdose deaths down is all but non-existent.

“If there was, then you would expect to see in budget documents and government policies the success or failure of programs measured against declining deaths,” Mullins noted.

He pointed out the Ministry’s goal is to reduce deaths by 50 per cent by the end of 2023, a statistic that becomes less feasible as six people die each day in the province from poisoned drugs.

Mullins thinks the government simply does not care about the crisis, adding politicians “care much more about whether people are using drugs or not using drugs.”

“They’re pretty obsessed with the opioid molecule in your bloodstream and not whether there’s air in your lungs,” he said.

Rather than focusing on saving lives, Mullins spoke about the “new moral panic” growing around safe supply programs, with attacks reaching new heights last week in the National Post.

“If drug users can be all rounded up, then that’s where the dream ends for them,” he said. “It’s just we’re going back to being invisible.”

The moral panic Mullins speaks about reflects a growing trend of zero-tolerance drug policy gaining traction among conservatives. The decades of drug war propaganda in journalism, pop culture and public policy has not helped the cause either.

“The problem for them [right-wing leaders] is that they would rather that we die out of the visual range of their base,” he said.

He attributes part of the backlash to safe supply programs to the fact that they are often small, tiny pilot projects that simply do not have the capacity to effectively combat the crisis. It is not the mission that is flawed, but rather, the funding to see them through that is jeopardizing its success.

Without action, it is clear the number of toxic drug supply deaths will continue to rise.

“Health Canada has models that show what will happen if no substantive programmatic changes occur,” Mullins said. “Things are just going to keep getting worse.”

Mullins believes the solution to the crisis lies in funding low-barrier safe supply programs across the country that do not subject clients to urine tests and surveilled consumption. After all, he says those who are dying from fentanyl should be getting prescription fentanyl.

By regulating drugs the same way as alcohol, those who use them can be sure of what is in the substance and how strong it is. Governments can also prohibit the substances from people under a specific age.

“Society gets to decide certain rules around the sale of alcohol, but it does not have the ability to decide any rules around the sale of drugs,” Mullins said. “So the people who are anti-safe supply are actually ending up being pro-death and pro-drug dealer.”

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...