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Nanaimo and Campbell River toxic drug deaths on the rise

The number for the first eight months of this year is already as high as all of 2022
Chris Ewart, administrator for the Nanaimo Area Network of Drug Users, with other members at an International Overdose Awareness Day in Maffeo Sutton Park on Aug. 31. SUBMITTED

The number of toxic drug deaths in Nanaimo and Campbell River during the first eight months of this year is already as high as all of 2022.

B.C.’s coroner said Monday drug toxicity is the leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 59, outweighing homicides, suicides, natural diseases and accidents combined, as the province released the latest figures of unregulated-drug deaths for August, which showed 174 deaths last month.

While the numbers in August represent the lowest monthly death toll for the province recorded since June of 2022, some communities are seeing high numbers.

In Nanaimo, the number of people lost to the unregulated-drug supply from January until the end of August is 86, two more than all of last year.

Campbell River has recorded 31 deaths this year, the same as the total in 2022. By comparison, 89 people have died so far this year in Greater Victoria, while last year saw 146 deaths.

The coroners service cautions that the data is preliminary and could change as investigations are completed.

Chris Ewart, an administrator at the Nanaimo Area Network of Drug Users, said she’s not surprised by the high numbers in Nanaimo.

Very few people are able to access a safer supply of drugs in the city, because few doctors are prescribing it, she said, leaving people to risk their lives with the unregulated supply.

The housing crisis is also playing a role, with “sky-high” rents forcing people out of their homes and into homelessness, Ewart said. Some of those finding themselves newly homeless weren’t using drugs before, but are turning to the unregulated market to cope, she said.

“It’s different than it ever was before. I’m old and I remember seeing people that were without a place to live, but they could go couch surf, but those people that let you couch surf, they’re homeless now. There’s nowhere for them to go. They don’t have a place,” Ewart said.

There were 26 toxic-drug deaths in the Island Health region last month. Greater ­Victoria, where six people died in August from an unregulated-drug supply, continues to record the third-highest number of deaths, after Vancouver and Surrey.

About 1,600 people have died in the first eight months of this year and almost two-thirds of those smoked their drugs, underscoring the need for safe consumption spaces where smoking is allowed, the B.C. Coroners Service said in a statement.

Operating a safe inhalation site comes with challenges because of laws to protect staff from working in smoking environments.

“Improvements in the quality and reach of harm reduction and evidence-based treatment services are essential, as is the critical need to ensure that those at risk of dying can access safer, regulated drugs. If we cannot implement these changes, our loved ones will continue to die,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said in a statement that it’s clear that communities across B.C. are grappling with the devastating effects of the unregulated-drug crisis. “Building on what we have learned, we are focusing on early intervention and expanding support services ­everywhere.”

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