Drug-toxicity deaths have surged to unprecedented levels in Mission. The city’s on track to have 189 per cent more deaths than its worst year ever recorded.
In the first three months of 2022, 13 people have died; the previous record (2017, 2021) was 18 deaths over the entire year, according to the BC Coroners Service’s quarterly report.
From Jan. 1 to March 31, more people have died in Mission than Chilliwack, Maple Ridge, Nanaimo and New Westminster – all cities with significantly more people. Mission’s death rate is tied with Langley’s, which has three times the population.
“It’s not a surprise. It’s incredibly tragic, and it’s preventable,” said Kat Wahamaa, project co-ordinator for Mission’s Community Action Team and Moms Stop the Harm’s regional liaison. She lost her son to an overdose in 2016.
“Until we address the toxicity in the illicit supply, the numbers are only going to increase.”
There have been 548 deaths recorded in B.C. over the first quarter, another record-setting year for drug toxicity deaths. A third of these deaths have occurred in the Fraser Health Authority.
So far in 2022: men accounted for 77 per cent of the illicit drug deaths; 74 per cent were between the aged of 30 and 59; 85 per cent of these deaths occurred inside (57 per cent in private residences, 28 per cent in social/supportive housing, shelters, hotels); and fentanyl was detected in 79 per cent of cases.
Of note, is an increase in extreme fentanyl concentrations found in post-mortem toxicology tests between November and March.
The mixing of benzodiazepines (32 per cent detected in samples as of March) into the opioid supply is also increasing the number of deaths, as it decreases the effectiveness of Naloxone, according to Wahamaa.
There have been no deaths reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites, nor is there any indication that prescribed drugs from B.C.’s safe supply program has led to any deaths, according to the BC Coroners Service report.
“It’s the access to safe supply that’s the issue,” Wahamaa said. “It’s falling on the shoulders of a few prescribers to meet that need.”
The B.C. government committed to expanding the safe supply program 18 months ago, calling on doctors to start issuing prescriptions for pharmaceutical-grade drugs as an alternative to the poisoned street-supply.
But Wahamaa said the College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPS) are still not actively endorsing the provincial safe supply program.
She said general practitioners lack info and support from the college, and are either afraid of being sanctioned, or against it for ideological reasons “even though it’s evidenced based.”
The CPS released a statement about the spike in illicit fentanyl deaths in April, clarifying their perspective on the safe supply program, claiming they’ve been “erroneously criticized” as a barrier to access.
No physicians would be audited for prescribing drugs “if it falls within their scope of practice,” training or expertise, according to the statement.
It says CPS is encouraging physicians to learn about substance abuse disorders, identify signs and risks, and make referrals to specialists.
“The College’s role is to ensure registrants provide safe care to their patients,” the statement says. “It has no role in advocating for or endorsing any particular clinical intervention or settling the scientific debate on the risks and benefits of safer supply.”
When it comes to the local illicit drug supply, the Mission RCMP measures its success based on the number of street level traffickers that are arrested and the number of search warrants executed, said Cpl. Jason Boon, of the detachment’s Crime Reduction Unit.
They also sometimes work with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit BC, a Lower Mainland integrated unit that handles larger enforcement projects.
“When it comes to OD deaths increasing throughout the year, this is mostly caused by a ‘Bad Batch’ but is not the only factor,” Boon said.
He noted drugs located at the scene of a death are sent to the lab for further analysis, which can lead to a public health notice being issued.
The other factors at play involve personal tolerances, high fentanyl percentages in the supply, more addicts in town, and society’s push to normalize and decriminalize drug use, according to Cpl. Jason Raaflub, media officer with the detachment.
When a dealer or drugs are taken off the street, it generally has little effect on the number of overdoses or deaths in town, Raaflaub said, but added they don’t track these numbers at the local level.
“In a matter of days, a new drug line is up and running,” Raaflub said. “Depending on the size of the drugs removed from the street-level supply, this may make a dent for a few days.”