Community groups and victims' families were downtown Montreal in an effort to end the stigma surrounding drug use and overdoses.

International Overdose Awareness Day is every August 31, and Montrealers met at Parc Emilie-Gamelin Saturday afternoon to raise awareness of the real issue of overdoses particularly in the midst of the opioid crisis.

"Every 31st of August for a number of years, (we gather) to actually mourn our people because usually, we don't have time to mourn them and there is already another death," said Cactus Montreal executive director Jean-Francois Mary.

Cactus Montreal is a community organization safe injection site that works with drug users, sex workers and trans people.

Mary said decriminalizing drug use and increasing the number of social workers can help reduce the number of deaths.

"We need to be able to supply people with clean drugs, so that they don't die from them and know that the dose they are using; they know the quantity and quality of the substance," he said.

In Quebec, more than 1,000 people wind up in an emergency room after consuming an unhealthy amount of drugs. Many do not leave the hospital alive.

Charlene Vacon's son Archie was one of those.

"Even though the first responders came quickly, and even though the paramedics came and did everything that they could, no one could revive Archie and he died," she said.

Vacon said her son was happy after getting a new job before he went out one night and overdosed on fentanyl in a Montreal bar two months ago.

"He was so beautiful," she said holding back tears. "He was so full of life and he had so much planned for his future."

Dr. Martin Laliberte is an emergency physician and medical toxicologist at the McGill University Health Centre, and believes awareness of the potential harms associated with opioids in particular is of grave importance.

"It's very, very important to make the public and make everyone aware of the potential dangers of those prescription medications," he said.

Opioids are prescribed on a regular basis for pain relief after accidents, surgery, cancer treatment and other situations, and dependence on these drugs, however, can happen very quickly.

"People have to realize that prescription opioids are actually very powerful and very useful drugs," said Laliberte. "However, the dark side of opioids is people can get used to them very, very quickly, and they can be dangerous in that way and, after a while, in only a matter of five or six or seven days, people can get used to it, and become dependent."

The opioid crisis dates back to the early 2000s, and Dr. Laliberte said the seriousness of the situation has never been worse in Canada and the United States.

"It's actually been going on for at least 15 years, and there's been a constant increase of people who are becoming dependent on opioids, and that is associated with an increased risk of mortality after accidently overdoses with opioids," he said.

According to data from the National Institute of Public Health of Quebec, 119 people lost their lives due to a drug overdose related in the first three months of the year. This is up sharply from the first quarter of 2018, when 82 people lost their lives in the same circumstances.

In March of this year, 98 people wound up in emergency rooms for opioid poisoning, which is the worst since Sept. 2017.

"It's a problem that's in constant progression and that not only involves prescription opioids, but also synthetic opioids that are available on the black market. It is a very, very worrisome situation," said Dr. Laliberte.

Vacon wants to see fentanyl strips redily available, as well as Naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids.

"As a parent, the shock and the overwhelming sorrow settles in and you can see it hasn't left yet," she said. "When people say it's their worst nightmare and they can't imagine it, there's a reason why you can't imagine it because the depth of the sorrow is unimaginable."