National Drug and Alcohol Research Center says ACT has nation’s highest rate of drug-induced deaths, as families call for change

The ACT has the highest rate of drug-induced deaths per capita in the country, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center has found.

Key points:

  • ACT has the highest rate of drug induced deaths in Australia, at 12 per 100,000 people
  • Families who have lost loved ones to overdose are calling for change, including the decriminalization of drugs
  • Critics of decriminalization say it could pave the way for gangs and organized crime to exploit drugs to make more money

According to the latest available data, the estimated rate of drug-induced deaths in the ACT was 12 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the national rate of 7.2 deaths per 100,000 people.

Lead researcher on the project, Amy Peacock, said another concerning trend identified was that the rate of overdose in the ACT increased from 2019 to 2020.

“These numbers are only preliminary; we do anticipate revised numbers coming out soon,” she said.

“It’s likely with those revisions that the numbers will increase further.”

The research found 52 per cent of the deaths were in males, and the age group most affected was 34- to 44-year-olds.

The most common drug types involved in the overdoses were anti-epileptic and anti-parkinsonism drugs, followed by opioids and antidepressants.

The exact reasons for the increase in drug-related deaths is unclear but Devin Bowles from the Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Association ACT said there was an increase in heroin consumption across the territory in August of 2020.

“We do know that the COVID-19 pandemic changed drug supply change and that in August of 2020, the ACT witnessed a massive spike in heroin consumption per capita,” he said.

“It’s possible that there was a change in heroin supply that caught people off guard and unfortunately cost them their lives.”

Devin Bowles says there was an increase in heroin consumption across the territory in August 2020, possibly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.(ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)

But, he added that it was hard to know what was behind the increase due to challenges collecting information.

“Because drug use is illegal, we really have poor visibility of what’s behind this trend, so we can’t take better action to stop more deaths,” Mr Bowles said.

‘Stop the talk and get on with the action’

Marion McConnell lost her son to overdose 30 years ago.

“No tragedy like that ever leaves you,” she said.

She has since dedicated her life to advocacy for those suffering from drug addiction, through her charity, family and friends for Drug Reform.

She can’t believe the ACT is still having the same conversation around drug harm minimization strategies as they were when she first started her charity.

“I think that underscores the urgency to stop the talk and get on with the action,” she said.

“I mean, we know what programs save lives. The ACT’s very progressive on debate, but very little action has been happening and we know there’s… there’s many things that we know will save lives that we could be doing.”

An old woman with gray hair and glasses.Marion McConnell, who lost her son to drug overdose, has dedicated her life to advocacy for those suffering drug addiction through her charity Family and Friends for Drug Reform.(ABC News: Antoinette Radford)

Drug harm minimization strategies include improved access to supervised consumption centres, greater education of how to safely use drugs, improved access to treatment clinics, and one significant change: decriminalisation.

“Pill testing site and also looking into the feasibility of a safe consumption room. Both those measures will save lives. Finally, decriminalization is vital,” Mr Bowles said.

Many advocates for drug law reform believe decriminalization is an important step forward for recreational drug users.

“These people are already being punished by their drug addiction and law enforcement comes in on top of it, doesn’t help. And I think our health services and that, are realizing that,” Ms McConnell said.

Mr Bowles echoed that sentiment.

“Decriminalization would absolutely reduce drug-related harm. We know that drug decriminalization does not increase consumption if its just for personal possession,” he said.

“It does, however make people more able to seek treatment or harm reduction if they feel like they need it.

“It’s actually one of the best things we can do to reduce future deaths.”

There is currently a bill set to be debated in the ACT surrounding the decriminalization of small amounts of illegal substances.

Concerns decriminalization could pave way for organized crime

Piles of fans, cooling implements and buckets sit outside a property at Harolds Cross.Critics of decriminalization say it could pave the way for gangs and organized crime to profit from drugs.(Supplied: NSW Police Force)

But not everyone supports decriminalization as a tactic for reducing drug-related harm.

“The ACT government needs to come up with a better solution. Just decriminalizing drugs isn’t the correct solution,” Australian Federal Police Association representative Alex Caruana said.

He said police had concerns that decriminalizing drugs would pave the way for gangs and organized crime to exploit drugs to make more money.

“By increasing the number of drug sales that are going to occur, we’re increasing the capacity to do these other heinous crimes,” he said.

He instead proposed better education of the concerns around illicit substances, and creating larger drug support clinics and healthcare centres.

“Drug addiction is a health issue. We support that. We’ve said that from the beginning. We agree that something needs to change and the government needs to do more,” he said.

“It’s not a policing issue nor is it a decriminalization issue… the legislation as it stands allows police officers to divert people currently to these help centers if they existed. The fact is they don’t exist.”

While both sides of the debate fundamentally agree with the requirement for treating addiction as a health issue and both want to see more support services across the territory, Ms McConnell believes the research points to decriminalization.

“We’ve had inquiries and so much research has been collected, it’s all there. We just need to do it,” she said.

Posted 18h ago18 hours agoFri 3 Jun 2022 at 10:16pm, updated 13h ago13 hours agoSat 4 Jun 2022 at 3:04am

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