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Too many people are dying from preventable overdoses and Aotearoa lacks the interventions that could stop them, a new report being released this week by the NZ Drug Foundation shows.

The latest coronial and Ministry of Health data, compiled in the Drug Foundation’s 2022 State of the Nation report, shows that opioid overdoses kill around 46 people each year, while synthetic cannabinoids have contributed to at least 51 deaths between 2016 and 2020. Anecdotally, at least a further dozen people died from the use of synthetic cannabinoids in 2021.

The Drug Foundation’s Executive Director, Sarah Helm, says that overdoses are preventable and we need to be doing more to stop them, including interventions such as supervised consumption spaces, increased availability of overdose-reversing medicine naloxone and better data.

“Nearly 50 people are dying each year from preventable opioid overdoses, and we are still seeing deaths from synthetic cannabinoids. The numbers are shocking and it’s unacceptable. There are proven interventions overseas that can help to prevent overdoses, but our drug laws don’t allow for them,” she says.

Helm says evidence from the likes of Canada and Australia shows that supervised consumption and harm reduction centres prevent deaths and provide support.

“The Needle Exchange was a world-leading harm reduction initiative when New Zealand launched the programme in the 1980s. We are now lagging behind on new harm reduction measures that are seeing huge success overseas.

“If we want to stop people needlessly dying from preventable overdoses, we urgently need to investigate supervised consumption and harm reduction centres that are tailored to a New Zealand context.”

Helm also says that availability of naloxone, a medicine that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, is still far too patchy. She says that providing funding to increase availability is a complete no-brainer.

“The continued lack of availability for this lifesaving medicine for people who use drugs is infuriating. It’s an off the shelf lifesaver and it should be in the hands of anyone who is using opioids and their loved ones.”

The Drug Foundation purchased some naloxone after a fundraising drive in 2021 and is running a pilot programme to distribute the medicine through Needle Exchanges.

“Needle Exchanges are ideal channels to distribute this medicine, with trained staff and the right relationships. They have distributed it in the past but without proper funding it’s been patchy.”

Helm says that compiling data for the report was a huge challenge as coronial and Ministry of Health data are not intuitive and do not align with each other. There is also a time-lag in calculating overdose deaths as they progress through the coronial process, and this takes several years.

She says this makes it nearly impossible to understand the full picture of drug overdose deaths in our country, and to identify and respond to emerging trends.

The Drug Foundation’s full 2022 State of the Nation report was released on Thursday 17 February 2022. 


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