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The first snapshots from a project aimed at providing a better picture of people at greatest risk of illicit drug use reveal that an average of nearly 10 Canadians fatally overdosed each day between 2016 and 2018.

Statistics Canada says the data from the Public Health Agency of Canada show British Columbia is facing the worst of the crisis.

Further data from the agency reveal victims in B.C. range from employed people who have never had contact with the justice, social assistance or hospital systems to those with little work history and long-term legal and social issues.

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B.C. Coroners Service numbers included in the study show overdoses leaped from 293 in 2011 to 639 by 2016 and nearly three-quarters of those deaths involved 25- to 54-year-old men.

Of those at risk, the study shows roughly one-quarter were hospitalized in the year before their deaths, more than 40 per cent visited an emergency room at least once in that time, and three-quarters of those who had contact with police for an alleged crime died within a year of that interaction.

The data are from the Opioid Project, a partnership between numerous agencies including Statistics Canada, British Columbia’s Health Ministry, the B.C. Coroners Service and several departments within the City of Surrey, including its RCMP detachment and fire department.

Surrey’s high profile in the project stems from its efforts to develop a real-time overdose reporting system to rapidly respond to areas where a bad batch of drugs may be circulating.

Surrey fire Chief Len Garis, who is also an assistant professor in the school of criminology and criminal justice at the University of the Fraser Valley, said the findings should help focus prevention programs.

“What we’re trying to do is determine the trajectory of the individual who died so we can find out what his or her pathway was to this particular issue,” he said.

“So far, what we know is that the majority of those individuals who died, their contacts with police were for shoplifting and for the administration of justice, basically failing to comply with an order and for breach of probation,” he said.

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That information suggests the justice system needs to try a different approach, Garis said.

“It’s a vicious cycle within the justice system before they die. So we have to change the way we do business.”

He said more resources, such as supportive housing, recovery programs and addiction management, are also needed for people who shoplift to support their addiction.

Garis said the biggest surprise for him was that two-thirds of the people who fatally overdosed had no contact with police.

The data from 2016 also show nearly 25 per cent of people worked in the construction industry and almost half of them were in building maintenance, waste management and support services.

The B.C. Coroners Service recorded more than 3,400 overdose deaths in the province between January 2016 and September 2018. The number of fatalities decreased by 27 per cent in August compared with July.

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The top four drugs involved in illicit-drug deaths were fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

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