Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall

Cold adds risk as drug overdoses soar

People using opioid drugs alone have little time to react to overdose, 128 deaths across B.C. in November alone

Cold weather has meant more B.C. illicit drug users overdose alone at home, in public washroom stalls or on deserted streets, pushing B.C.’s highest-ever drug death total to new heights.

The isolation of drug users, and the likely introduction of even more lethal synthetic opioids into the street drug supply, contributed to 128 B.C. overdose deaths in November, provincial health officials said Monday. That brings the total deaths in B.C. to 755 for the year, up 70 per cent from last year, with little relief in sight for December.

“We are seeing people die with a naloxone kit open beside then, and they haven’t had time to use it,” said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s Chief Coroner, referring to the overdose treatment that has been made widely available.

By the end of December, the B.C. government expects to have 18 “overdose prevention sites” open in high-risk areas, including Surrey, Victoria, Prince George, Kelowna, Kamloops, Maple Ridge, Langley, Abbotsford and Vancouver.

Health Minister Terry Lake issued an emergency order Dec. 9 to open the new supervised sites without permission from the federal government.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall pleaded with affected communities to stop their protests against overdose prevention sites. The supervised sites will save lives, “and what they will not do is bring problems into communities,” because the drugs and users are already there, Kendall said.

Clayton Pecknold, B.C.’s director of police services, said he is encouraged by the latest federal government efforts to intercept synthetic drugs coming from China by mail. But there are still federal drug enforcement positions vacant, he said.

The potent synthetic drug fentanyl has been detected in about half of overdose cases, and even more powerful derivatives may be coming into B.C.

In a statement, provincial officials said 300 drug treatment beds have been opened and another 100 coming in the next month and the goal of 500 reached by the end of March.

Kendall said there is too much emphasis on treatment beds, when what is needed is a “continuum of services” to keep drug addicts from relapsing and move them to alternatives such as methadone.