11/09/2017 20:41 EST | Updated 11/09/2017 20:41 EST

Opioid Crisis: Over 1,100 People Have Overdosed And Died In B.C. In 9 Months

The province has already passed its 2016 total.

VICTORIA — The unprecedented overdose death toll in British Columbia means it may be time to have a "courageous conversation" about decriminalizing the drugs that are killing so many people, says the province's minister of addictions.

While decriminalizing drugs is a federal matter, Judy Darcy said Thursday the province is doing everything it can to stem the number of deaths.

B.C.'s Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, Melanie Mark, left, and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Judy Darcy, right, listen as 2,224 wooden stakes, representing the number of confirmed overdose deaths over the last three years, are placed on the ground at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver on Sept. 29, 2017.

"I think the fundamental issue here is we need to start treating addiction like a health issue," she said, adding many people living with addictions are homeless or living in poverty.

"We need to be pouring on the supports so that we have a pathway to hope for people and so they don't end up in the criminal justice system."

The death toll from illicit drug overdoses reached 1,103 for the first nine months of this year, the coroners' service said. In 2016, 982 people fatally overdosed in British Columbia.

The opioid fentanyl was detected in about 83 per cent of the deaths, representing a 147 per cent increase over the same period last year, it said.

Women write messages on a banner during a memorial service to remember those who have died in B.C. as a result of the drug overdose crisis, on International Overdose Awareness Day in downtown Vancouver on Aug. 31, 2017.

In most cases, the powerful opioid painkiller was combined with other drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

Darcy said removing the threat of being arrested for those who are caught using the drugs could be helpful.

"I think we should be prepared as a country to have a courageous conversation about it. In the meantime we are pushing the envelope and we are being bold and innovative in doing everything we can within the context of the present federal framework."

The federal Health Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Safe consumption sites have opened around the province for addicts and the coroner's service said there have been no deaths at them.

Registered nurse Sammy Mullally holds a tray of supplies to be used by a drug addict at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver on May 11, 2011.

Ninety per cent of the deaths happened indoors, half of those in private homes.

Darcy said her ministry is working to counter the factors that lead to most of the deaths.

"We are also ramping up .... a major anti-stigma campaign and a major campaign to reach out to people who are using alone because nine out of 10 people who are dying are using at home alone. That's about overcoming stigma, that's about everybody in a family, in a community, friends reaching out and having conversations with people and reducing the stigma."

Three-quarters of those who died are between the ages of 30 and 59, and four out of five of them are male.

A woman is consoled while wiping away tears during a memorial service to remember those who have died in B.C. as a result of the drug overdose crisis in Vancouver on Aug. 31, 2017.

The Fraser Health Authority, which covers Metro Vancouver neighbourhoods from Burnaby to Hope on the east side of the Fraser Valley, had the most deaths this year at 295, followed by Vancouver at 269.

In 2012, fentanyl was detected in just four per cent of overdose deaths.

Darcy said the government is looking at enlarging a program used at overdose prevention sites in Vancouver where people can check their illicit drugs for fentanyl.

"But we plan to do everything we can including expanding drug checking to keep people safe from these poisoned drug supplies on the street."

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