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Fentanyl pills are shown in an undated police handout photo.The Canadian Press

A powerful synthetic opioid that just years ago was largely restricted to hospitals and people living with chronic pain is now found in more than half of all illicit drug overdose deaths in British Columbia.

From January to April, fentanyl was detected in 56 per cent of all deaths from overdoses of illicit drugs, according to new figures from the B.C. Coroners Service released on Thursday. This is up from 31 per cent last year, 25 per cent in 2014, 15 per cent in 2013 and less than 5 per cent in 2012.

Health and police officials have feared for some time that illicit fentanyl, produced overseas and imported into Canada, is flooding the black market and things will get worse before they get better.

A recent Globe and Mail investigation found that local traffickers can easily order the highly potent, low-cost drug online and have guaranteed shipment to Canada. It is then cut into street drugs such as heroin and oxycodone to make them go further and maximize profits.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the number of deaths from illicit-drug overdoses in B.C., spurred by the growing presence of fentanyl, is now "much more significant than any other type of unnatural death in the province."

From January through May this year, at least 308 people died of illicit drug overdoses – a 75 per cent increase over the same period last year (176). In comparison, for all of 2015, there were 300 deaths in incidents involving motor vehicles, and 122 homicides.

"If this [illicit drug overdose] trend were to continue, we'd be looking at about 750 deaths this year," Ms. Lapointe said on Thursday.

The 308 deaths represent 10.2 per 100,000 population – a rate not seen since 1998 (10 deaths per 100,000 population).

The recent surge prompted B.C. health officials to declare a public health emergency in April. This granted them some new powers, such as the ability to collect and share real-time data on overdoses, which provincial health officer Perry Kendall says has been useful in identifying "hot spots" of drug use in the province.

Vancouver Coastal Health is expanding supervised injection service, with a goal to integrate it into about five existing facilities as part of standard nursing care. Prospective operators must receive an exemption from federal drug laws; B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake says he has asked his federal counterpart, Jane Philpott, to reduce the barriers.

The previous federal government, led by Stephen Harper, had introduced the Respect for Communities Act, which made applying for an exemption much more onerous. Mr. Lake said he asked Dr. Philpott to reconsider the legislation.

"She has indicated to me, on a personal level, that they will take a different view than the former government in terms of approval of providing exemptions for consumption sites," he said.

B.C. also has Take Home Naloxone, a program introduced four years ago to train drug users and their loved ones how to administer Naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. The project distributes the kits for free.

As of mid-May, the harm-reduction program has trained more than 8,000 people and distributed 8,600 kits. It is credited with reversing at least 637 overdoses.

Meanwhile, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) on Thursday held a day-long meeting to discuss next steps in responding to the province's public-health emergency. Medical experts, law enforcement officials, academics, government representatives, drug users and their family members attended.

Mark Tyndall, executive medical director of the BCCDC, said the common theme was the need for swift intervention.

"I hope that we can prioritize some actions so the ministry can mull them over and see what they want to do, because none of them are free," he said.

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