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'My baby's gone': 2021 now B.C.'s deadliest year for overdose deaths

'It is beyond devastating'
Helene Beson
Helene Beson lost her son James Favell to a drug overdose in May 2021.

Helene Beson was woken May 5, 2021 expecting her son James Favell to be there with their usual morning coffee. He'd grab the cups of joe from the Tim Hortons near her downtown Vancouver home.

It wasn’t James.

It was the police.

They handed her James’ necklace and his wallet.

"'Your son has passed,'" she recalls them telling her.

The coroner later confirmed James' death was from a mix of cocaine, crystal methamphetamine and fentanyl.

"I just screamed for three days," Beson tells Glacier Media. "All I could do was scream."

“I loved him more than anything,” Beson says through tears. “My baby’s gone.”

And Beson is angry that her son, 36 when he died, is one of the 2,224 people who died in B.C. in 2021 from an illicit drug overdose.

That’s a 26% increase over the number of deaths seen in 2020, the BC Coroners Service announced Feb. 9 in its latest update. By November and December, the death rate had risen to seven people per day.

Indeed, the 2021 number is almost equivalent to the entire town of Princeton being wiped out.

2020 had been the worst year for illicit drug deaths, with 1,726 deaths. The highest number previously was in 2018, with 1,549 deaths. By April 2018, 535 people died, down from 555 in April of 2017, a year which saw 1,493 fatalities.

"It is with a heavy heart that our province continued to experience an unprecedented number of lives lost to the toxic drug supply in 2021,” Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, and Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said in a joint statement.

“It is beyond devastating that we lost 2,224 people: our brothers, sisters, children, parents, neighbours and friends to toxic drugs. No words can soften these losses,” the statement said.

"The number of people who died from the toxic drug supply last year is unacceptable and we must do more to prevent this tragic loss of life. While the province is adding new services and supports to our health-care system each week, B.C. faces a rising tide of need.”

Henry and Malcolmson said the most important way to keep people alive is to ensure a safer supply.

“The expansion of this life-saving program is now underway across our province.

"Addressing this challenge requires our health-care system and partners to work together. That's why the province is working closely with the BC Centre on Substance Use, Doctors of BC, and Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of BC to also make sure prescribers have the support they need to confidently connect their patients with a safer supply.

Chief coroner wants urgent action

B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the loss of life in the past seven years is devastating, the death rate having risen more than 400 per cent in that period.

“Drug toxicity is now second only to cancers in B.C. for potential years of life lost. We cannot simply hope that things will improve,” Lapointe said. “It is long past time to end the chaos and devastation in our communities resulting from the flourishing illicit drug market, and to ensure, on an urgent basis, access across the province to a safe, reliable regulated drug supply."

Lapointe said decision-makers at all levels urgently need to recognize and respond to the public health emergency.

"The reality is this: every day we wait to act, six more people will die,” she said. “COVID-19 has shown what is possible when governments act decisively to save lives. And in order to save lives in this public-heath emergency, we need to provide people with access to the substances they need, where and when they need them. Time has run out for research and discussion. It is time to take action."

Beson agrees with a safe supply but believes government can do more.

However, Beson’s tired of hearing about what the government says it’s going to do. She wants treatment readily available and wants dealers to be prosecuted. She suggests drugs taken from arrested drug dealers should be tested for fentanyl.

If those drugs test positive for fentanyl, Beson says “they should be put in jail for attempted murder because that’s what fentanyl is. It’s murder.”

The Vancouver woman also wants mental illness to be taken seriously. Beson says James had obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and fetal alcohol syndrome.

“He was going around for years without medication,” she says. “They finally gave him medication when he tried to jump off the Granville Street Bridge. They certified him and put him on medication.”

A grandmother's case

In the wake of her son’s death, Beson spends time with his children. She says her grandson resents his father for leaving them.

She had taken James to see his children just before he died but the drugs had him firmly in their grip and he couldn’t relate to his son.

“James didn’t say a word to him because he was so high he couldn’t speak.” 

Still, she differentiates between James her son and James the addict. She knows things would have been different without the problem that plagued him much of his life.

“I forgave him because I knew it wasn’t him,” Beson says, tears rolling down her cheeks.

2021 overdose crisis by the numbers

• In November and December 2021, there were 210 and 215 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths, respectively, the two largest numbers of suspected deaths ever recorded in a month;

• Overall, in 2021, there were on average 6.1 deaths per day.

• In 2021, 71% of those dying were aged 30 to 59, and 78% were male.

• The townships experiencing the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2021 are Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria;

• By health authority in 2021, the highest numbers of illicit drug toxicity deaths were in Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Authorities (765 and 615 deaths, respectively), making up 62% of all such deaths during this period;

• By health authority in 2021, the highest rates were in Vancouver Coastal Health (49 deaths per 100,000 individuals) and Northern Health (48 per 100,000). Overall, the rate in B.C. is 43 deaths per 100,000 individuals in 2021;

• By health service delivery area in 2021, the highest rates were in Vancouver,

Thompson Cariboo, Northwest, Northern Interior, and Fraser East;

• By local health area in 2021, the highest rates were in Upper Skeena, Merritt, Enderby, Lillooet, and North Thompson;

• In 2021, 83% of illicit drug toxicity deaths occurred inside (56% in private residences and 28% in other residences including social and supportive housing, SROs, shelters, and hotels and other indoor locations) and 15% occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets, parks, etc.;

• In Vancouver Coastal, other residences (47%) were the most common place of illicit drug toxicity deaths followed by private residences (36%) between 2018 and 2021;

• No deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites, and;

• There is no indication that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths.

Trends

• Male illicit drug toxicity death rates have remained at a high rate. Female rates have trended higher in recent months;

• Illicit drug toxicity death rates among 19+ years have remained high, while rates among 0-18 years remain stable;

• The proportion of deaths that are 50+ years of age has steadily increased year after year for the past six years. In 2021, 38% of deaths were 50 years or over, and;

• Illicit drug toxicity death rates for all health authority rates remain high.

jhainsworth@glaciermedia.ca 

twitter.com/jhainswo