Opioid-related deaths continue to rise in Canada, averaging approximately 22 lives lost each day in 2023, an ongoing trend since the pandemic, according to government data.

There were 8,049 deaths due to opioid poisoning in the country last year, a 7 percent increase over 2022, according to a newly released report from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

While opioid-related deaths have been climbing since 2016, they rose dramatically in 2020, the height of the pandemic, and have remained high ever since, say the co-chairs of the federal, provincial, and territorial Special Advisory Committee on Toxic Drug Poisonings. .

The majority of the opioid overdose deaths—87 percent—occurred in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, and were largely due to fentanyl use. Eighty-two percent of overdose deaths last year were linked to fentanyl, an extremely potent pain reliever that is typically used in a hospital setting.

Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have increased 44 percent since 2016 when national surveillance began, but appear to have leveled off in recent years, the report found, adding that, in 2023, 61 percent of such deaths also involved a stimulant.

Opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations rose 16 percent over 2022 levels, the report found. There were a total of 6,312 hospitalizations for an average of 17 per day.

Opioid overdose emergency room (ER) visits and paramedic calls were also up 17 and 18 percent respectively with 28,345 ER visits and 41,938 EMS responses in 2023. That’s a daily average of 78 opioid-related ER visits and 115 paramedic calls, the report said.

Impact of Mixing Drugs

A statement from the co-chairs of the Special Advisory Committee on Toxic Drug Poisonings attributed the ongoing opioid crisis to a “dangerous illegal synthetic drug supply.”

“Powerful drugs like fentanyl and other emerging synthetic opioids are flooding the illegal drug supply,” it said. “This has contributed to an increasingly unpredictable toxic drug supply that is more deadly for people who use substances.”

The most common combination of substances identified in opioid overdose deaths between 2018 and 2022 were fentanyl mixed with either methamphetamine, cocaine, or other psychoactive substances.

Drug cocktails are much more difficult to treat than those involving a single substance, they said, and ultimately lead to more deaths and hospital visits.

This is what happened this winter in Belleville, a small city in Southeastern Ontario.

The mayor declared a state of emergency in February after paramedics responded to 17 overdoses in a 24-hour period. The move came just a few months after local emergency services responded to more than 90 overdoses in the first week of November 2023 alone.
Hastings County Paramedic Chief Carl Bowker told The Epoch Times the Belleville overdose crisis was caused by opioids laced with a substance “that wasn’t responding” to Naloxone, a medication used to reverse or reduce the effects of such drugs.

He said his staff had heard reports of the drugs being laced with date rape drug GHB, with ketamine, a powerful anesthetic, or even with an animal tranquilizer.

Opioid Use Highest Among Younger Males

While fentanyl overdoses occur among both genders, they are much more prevalent with men, particularly those who are under the age of 50, the health agency’s report said.

Seventy-two percent of such deaths occurred among men with 29 percent of those men falling into the 30 to 39 age range.

ER visits in 2023 for opioid poisonings are also predominantly younger males. The stats showed that 68 percent of visitors were males and 74 percent were between the ages of 20 and 49.

That doesn’t mean younger and older people aren’t using fentanyl. A 2023 Health Canada report noted that “people as young as 17 and as old as 78” were dying of opioid overdoses in the Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox, and Addington region, which neighbors Belleville.

The Opioid Crisis

While Ontario and Alberta are both struggling with a rise in drug overdoses, the problem has become acute in British Columbia where at least 198 deaths in January were linked to the use of illegal drugs.

A BC Coroners Service report described “unregulated drug toxicity” as the leading cause of death for BC residents aged 10 to 59, saying it accounted for “more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents, and natural diseases combined.” The report noted that more than 14,000 British Columbians have died of toxic overdose since the public-health emergency was first declared in April 2016.
In Alberta, drug overdose was responsible for nearly 1,700 deaths in the first 10 months of 2023, according to the Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System. Only 127 of the 1,692 drug-poisoning deaths reported through October 2023 did not involve opioids, the system’s statistics show. Fentanyl was a contributing factor in 79 percent of the deaths, while methamphetamine showed up in 63 percent of the overdoses and carfentanil in 23 percent.