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Firefighter Brandon Davies, right, along with two other first responders attend a medical call in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2016.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The BC Coroners Service says it recorded 876 suspected drug overdose deaths in the province through the first seven months of 2017 and fentanyl was detected in 81 per cent of them.

Both figures represent a significant increase over last year. As of the end of July, 2016, B.C. had seen 482 overdose deaths, with 60 per cent involving fentanyl.

The coroner's latest data release provides another glimpse inside B.C.'s opioid crisis. While the data have allowed B.C. health officials to plan their response to the epidemic, jurisdictions such as Ontario have been criticized for not doing enough to track overdoses.

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Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner, said the province continues to see far too many overdose deaths and the risk of using illicit drugs remains high.

"Fentanyl is everywhere in the province," she said in an interview on Thursday.

"It's being ingested knowingly by some individuals who prefer fentanyl. But it's also contained in substances that the user has no idea fentanyl is in there."

Ms. Lapointe said she was heartened to see a decline in suspected overdose deaths in recent months. After 147 fatalities were recorded in April, the total dipped to 137 in May, 114 in June and 91 in July.

But the 91 deaths in July still represent a 30-per-cent increase over July, 2016, when the province had 70 overdose fatalities.

Ms. Lapointe said the recent decline does not mean the illicit drug supply in B.C. is any safer and the numbers could climb again.

"The pattern we saw last year was similar. We saw an increase in the spring, and then August, September, the numbers looked not too bad, October started to increase and November and December were the worst months we had ever seen," she said.

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The Coroners Service said that in most of the 2017 deaths, fentanyl was found in combination with other illicit drugs, most often cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

B.C. declared a public-health emergency in April of the previous year and the government and its partner agencies have opened around 20 overdose-prevention sites, expanded supervised injectable opioid-assisted therapies and opened shared using rooms in social-housing buildings to encourage drug users not to use alone.

Approximately 54 per cent of those who died were between the ages of 30 and 49. Eighty-two per cent were men. The Coroners Service said 89 per cent of deaths occurred inside, with 58 per cent in private residences. No deaths were recorded at supervised drug-use or overdose-prevention sites.

"We really need people to, if they're going to use drugs, use ideally at a supervised consumption site or an overdose prevention site if one's available in the community. Or in the presence of somebody trained and willing to use naloxone," Ms. Lapointe said.

Of the 2017 deaths, 226 occurred in Vancouver, 101 in Surrey, 57 in Victoria and 50 in Kelowna.

Mark Lysyshyn, medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, said in an interview that the number of deaths is still high though he also pointed to the recent decline.

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"We're still sort of at the mercy of the toxicity of the drugs," he said. "You can see that when we get really toxic drugs circulating, deaths increase. That's what happened in November and December, we saw a much more toxic batch of drugs get on the street. And then we saw tons of overdose deaths, tons of admissions to our emergency rooms, tons of overdoses at our supervised injection sites, it overwhelmed the ambulance system."

B.C. recorded 978 overdose deaths in total last year. Fentanyl was detected in 67 per cent of them.

The presence of fentanyl in B.C. overdose deaths has risen sharply in the past five years, from 4 per cent in 2012 to 15 per cent in 2013. The percentage climbed to 25 per cent in 2014 and 29 per cent in 2015.

Judy Darcy, B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, at a conference Thursday said the federal government must consider decriminalizing illicit drugs in response to the opioid crisis.

"I think we need to have this conversation in this country," she said of decriminalizing small amounts of drugs such as heroin.

Ms. Darcy added: "If this overdose crisis is not a wake-up call, I don't know what is."

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government does not plan to legalize any drugs other than marijuana.

He said Canada is tackling the overdose issue through a broad range of actions including "border controls, the inspection of small packages, by working with our partners, whether it be the United States or China, by ensuring that all levels of government, provincial, municipal and federal are working together."

With a report from the Canadian Press

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