The NZ Drug Foundation says a 54% increase in drug overdose deaths between 2017 and 2021 is deeply concerning and must prompt swift action on lifesaving preventative measures.
The increase – which was driven by growing numbers of deaths from opioids, alcohol, and benzodiazepines – is revealed in a new Drug Foundation report that analyses coronial data from 2017 to 2021. The data shows 171 people died from an overdose in 2021, up from 111 in 2017.
Drug Foundation Executive Director, Sarah Helm, says that overdoses are preventable, but public policy has neglected the issue for decades.
“Every overdose death is tragic and has a huge impact on whānau and communities. The fact we’ve seen overdoses increase over the last five years is simply unacceptable,” she says.
“There is so much we could and should be doing to prevent these deaths. The increasing numbers of people dying from overdose should be ringing alarm bells for policymakers.”
The report shows that Māori are disproportionately impacted, with data showing that per capita, Māori are three times more likely to die of an overdose than Pākehā.
Helm says that while fundamental law reform to implement a health-based approach is key to driving down overdoses, funding for naloxone and an Overdose Prevention Centre pilot are two quick and inexpensive interventions that the government could swiftly roll out.
“The data shows opioids featured in almost half of the overdose fatalities over the past five years, and deaths are increasing,” she says.
“Naloxone is an incredibly effective medicine that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and we want it in the hands of as many people as possible. The Drug Foundation has been trying to get New Zealand better prepared for a widespread opioid crisis like we’re seeing in other parts of the world.”
Some restrictions around injectable naloxone were recently relaxed by Medsafe following an application by the Drug Foundation.
“According to our legal advice, the changes mean organisations like ours will now be able to distribute injectable naloxone, so we are taking steps to procure some,” says Helm.
“This week we have also submitted a funding application to Pharmac for the nasal spray form of naloxone, Nyxoid, which is easier to use and therefore preferred by people who use drugs, their loved ones and first-responders like police.”
“Currently Nyxoid costs $92 for a box of two. We decided to take matters into our own hands because we could not continue to wait to get this out there.”
Helm says the Foundation’s Overdose Prevention Centre pilot proposal would take overdoses off Auckland’s streets and reduce drug harm amongst vulnerable communities, especially those experiencing homelessness.
The report also shows that mixing substances is a major contributor to fatal overdoses. Toxicology reports showed that 42% of people who died of an overdose over the past five years had five or more substances in their system.
Prescription and over-the-counter medications also feature heavily, with at least one medicine listed on the toxicology report in 77% of cases.
There has also been a sharp increase in alcohol-related overdose deaths in 2020 and 2021.
The report recommends several interventions and policy changes to reduce overdose fatalities, including:
Survey participants also reported that barriers to accessing services, resources and information were high.
A group of powerful synthetic opioids that were first detected in the country just a year ago may have already been linked to several deaths.
95% of respondents reported positive effects, in a study that looked at both prescription and black market cannabis use.