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Drug Foundation Calls For Urgent Action On Overdose Deaths

NZ Drug Foundation Executive Director Sarah Helm says fear of criminalisation is costing New Zealanders’ lives and measures are urgently needed to stem growing overdose fatalities.

In honour of international Support Don’t Punish Day 2023, the NZ Drug Foundation is today releasing an evidence-backed plan to end overdose deaths in Aotearoa.

Between 2013 and 2021, overdose deaths increased nearly five-fold to 171 people in 2021, putting the overdose death toll ahead of national drownings and over half the road toll from the same year. Between 2016–2021, Māori drug overdose rates were almost twice as high as those among people of European ethnicity.

Helm says overdoses deaths are tragic and very preventable.

“We can’t go back in time to stop the devastating loss experienced by those 171 families, but we can - and must - act now to prevent further tragedy,” says Helm.

Helm adds that criminalisation contributes to the death toll, because people may be reluctant to call 111 or seek medical help for overdose.

“We need drug laws that prevent death, rather than contributing to it. At the least, a ‘Good Samaritan’ provision in the law would mean that anyone who calls for help when witnessing an overdose would be protected from drug-related charges,” says Helm.

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“There is no single measure that will prevent all fatalities. We’ve pulled together a comprehensive overdose prevention plan which looks to evidence-led solutions from Aotearoa and abroad. There is so much we can be doing to prevent needless deaths.”

The Drug Foundation’s proposal outlines five key actions to prevent overdose:

  1. Overdose prevention services, such as an Overdose Prevention Centre pilot in Auckland, and a dedicated response service to work with people who have experienced non-fatal overdose
  2. Improving data on drug supply changes and overdose patterns, including introducing an Overdose Prevention Taskforce and a drugs deaths mortality review committee
  3. Improving preparedness for changes in our drug supply
  4. Distribution of naloxone and other overdose reversal medicines, modelled on a successful pilot in Australia
  5. Policy measures such as a ‘Good Samaritan’ provision, and replacing the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

While most fatal overdoses in New Zealand are linked to opioids and benzodiazepines, synthetic cannabinoids are the third most overdosed substance in Aotearoa.

New Zealanders can be proud of drug checking and the drug early warning system High Alert which are demonstrably preventing drug fatalities, but these are only part of what is needed, says Helm.

Helm says New Zealand is vulnerable to changes in the drug supply, and must be ready to act quickly.

“We’ve seen how fentanyl and other ultra-potent opioids have devastated communities in North America. We need to be monitoring trends and we need to be prepared to respond if these drugs become more widespread in New Zealand,” she says.

“Our overdose prevention plan is about meeting people where they’re at with services that help to reduce overdoses and harm at every level of use, not just when responding to crises.”

Support Don’t Punish Day is a global day of action in support of drug harm reduction and drug policies that prioritise health and human rights.

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