// Written by John Ronan, Penington Institute //
Every year communities around the world come together on 31 August to mark International Overdose Awareness Day.
In 2018, drug overdose is attracting widespread media attention like never before. In the United States, a growing overdose crisis is becoming a defining feature of political campaigns and filling the front pages of newspapers nationwide. It’s easy to see why almost 64,000 lives were lost to drug overdose in the United States in 2016 alone.
Those who think that Australia is escaping unscathed are wrong. There were more than 2,000 drug-related deaths in 2015, which increased from 1,313 in 2001. Media attention is building; this isn’t a problem that is going away. Last week a Victorian coronial inquest into the death of Samuel Morrison found that fatal heroin overdoses in the state have reached a 17-year high – there were 220 deaths last year alone. Samuel’s death was tragic but not uncommon. On his final night, his father saw him sitting on his bed watching television and quickly said goodnight. Hours later his brother Luke found him dead with a blood-filled syringe lying beside him. The coroner found that he probably died from an accidental heroin overdose after many years of mental health problems.
There is so much more that can be done to save lives like Samuels and that is why International Overdose Awareness Day is so important. When it comes to changing mindsets, rethinking policies and pursuing a new path in preventing overdose the voices of young people can make an enormous difference. Organisations like Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which are committed to ending the unwinnable “war on drugs” and reforming drug policy, are the future.
If young people in Australia and across the globe stand up and make themselves heard the sky is the limit. This change can’t come soon enough, because sadly in many ways we are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to alcohol and other policy and preventing overdose.
In many corners of the world, substance use is considered a moral failing and people thrown in over-crowded gaols, an approach that disproportionately affects racial minorities. It hasn’t worked; people still use drugs and remain at risk of overdose, but governments pretend a “tough on crime” plan will work. Of total Australian government investment tackling the problem of illicit drugs, almost 65 per cent is spent on supply reduction via law enforcement compared to 22 per cent on treatment, 9.5 per cent on prevention and just 2.2 per cent on harm reduction. If we changed these priorities we would stand a far better chance of saving lives.
Too often, we simply don’t have the right mix of policies and practices in place to help people. Take pharmacotherapy treatments like opioid replacement therapy – an absolute no-brainer in saving lives. A person is given measured doses of drugs like methadone and buprenorphine to wean themselves off opioids. It is considered best practice treatment but isn’t available for all those who need it.
In the United States, a country where more than 42,000 people died from an opioid overdose in 2016, there are caps on how many patients doctors can prescribe buprenorphine to. So even if every doctor who could prescribe the drug did so at the maximum rate more than half of those using opioids could not access the medication.
The situation is far from ideal at home too, in Australia dispensing fees can be as high as $10 a day. This is more than people pay for opioids such as oxycodone and for some a cost they just can’t afford. Imagine the inroads we could make if these fees were cut?
The list goes on, consider naloxone – a life-saving drug with few side effects and no abuse potential that can reverse an opioid overdose. Many people who use drugs (as well as their friends and family) don’t know how to access it or administer it. You can purchase naloxone over the counter at a pharmacy, but this option is far more expensive than obtaining a prescription from a GP and even then, some Doctors aren’t readily prescribing the drug for those at risk of overdose.
We know what needs to be done, the challenge lies in ending the stigma that surrounds drug overdose. On International Overdose Awareness Day this year, I encourage young people to make themselves heard and say enough is enough.
Let’s kickstart dialogue about evidence-based overdose prevention and drug policy – the things that are proven to work. Let’s change the way we view overdose and remember that every life lost is a tragedy. This isn’t something that affects people who are out of sight and out of mind. It could be your friend, your Mum, your Dad or your colleague. Overdose doesn’t discriminate, and lives lost should not be hushed up and forgotten.
On 31 August this year, you can make a difference and help deliver change.
International Overdose Awareness Day events and activities for 2018 events are already being registered on our website. You can buy badges or wristbands online and follow us on Facebook (@InternationalOverdoseAwarenessDay), Twitter (@OverdoseDay) and Instagram (@overdoseawarenessday).
– Article written and provided by Penington Institute for Overdose Awareness Day 2018