Overdose deaths in the South Cariboo increased dramatically in 2021, in line with a province-wide trend that resulted in the deadliest year on record for drug toxicity across B.C.
The rate of overdose deaths recorded in the local health area of 100 Mile House - which spans north to Lac La Hache and south to 70 Mile - saw a nearly 200 per cent increase from 2020, according to stats released by the BC Coroners Service earlier this month.
The rate for 2021 was 39.7 per 100,000 population, accounting for six deaths, up from 13.2 and 13.4 per 100,000 in 2020 and 2019 respectively.
In the South Cariboo local health area - which includes Clinton, Cache Creek, Ashcroft, Spences Bridge and Lytton - the death rate was 43.8 per 100,000, accounting for three deaths. That rate also saw a 200 per cent increase from 2020 and 2019, when the rate was 14.5 per 100,000.
The latest stats are a “huge concern” for Interior Health, according to medical health officer Dr. Karin Goodison, who cited a 29 per cent increase in deaths attributed to drug toxicity across the health region - slightly higher than the B.C. increase of 26 per cent.
Goodison said the risk associated with the unstable and increasingly toxic drug supply - in the region and across the province - has continued to escalate as fentanyl, carfentanil, benzodiazepines and other sedatives are being detected in the majority of samples.
“All of this together, combined with a number of factors leads us to this terrible place,” Goodison said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has likely contributed to the upward trend of overdose deaths as well, she noted, as increased isolation, reduced access to health care, poor mental health, and economic impacts, such as job loss and strained family dynamics, have negatively affected many.
Goodison said there are many initiatives in place across the province in an attempt to reduce overdose deaths.
“One of the things that we know is a challenge is the stigma surrounding drug use. How comfortable people who use drugs are in sharing their experiences in order to seek support,” she said.
Proposals to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs are a way to balance the scales between those struggling with illicit drug addiction and those battling legal substance use, she said.
“How do we make that a more equitable playing field, where people feel they can still access health supports without feeling like they’re going to risk criminal prosecution,” she said.
Focusing on a safer drug supply - by means of prescribed opioid agonist therapy or accessible drug-testing kits - is also an essential part of addressing the toxic drug crisis, Goodison added.
MLA Lorne Doerkson told the Free Press that while the overdose crisis is a “very serious issue,” he questions the use of the term ‘safe drug supply’ as a means of addressing it.
“I question the messaging saying that drugs are safe in any way,” Doerkson said. “It is a toxic supply, and we have been warned about that since the highways were washed out, that the toxic supply was about to get even more toxic. But I wouldn’t want to encourage using the words ‘safe supply.’ We need to help people get away from these drugs the best way that we possibly can.”
Doerkson said while he knows the opioid crisis is on the radar of the health ministry, he doesn’t believe it has been a focus in terms of supporting people living with addiction.
In rural B.C., he said, it’s even more challenging for those who are struggling to access supports for not just addiction but mental health and housing.
“Out here we have challenges around connectivity, not necessarily just Internet but also transportation,” Doerkson said. “It doesn’t take long to drive around our communities in the Cariboo-Chilcotin to see that people are in need.”
Goodison said that bringing the conversation to the forefront in the community is an important first step in addressing the ongoing crisis, along with creating spaces that are “physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy places to be.”
“The other thing is to view people we live with in our communities as people first, and view their medical illness - whatever that may be - with less judgment,” she said.
Recognizing that those dying in such large numbers from the toxic drug crisis are often young, working-age community members and that their deaths are having an impact on our province’s overall life expectancy is also important, Goodison said.
“They’ve got families, and they’ve got friends, they’re a part of this community,” she said. “The ripple effects of this are significant.”