27 August 2019

Overdose report confirms Canberrans have a problem with pharmaceutical opioids

| Ian Bushnell
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For every 1000 people in the ACT, about 15 doses of oxycodone and about 10 doses of fentanyl were taken every day, according to the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program. File photo.

Fatal drug overdoses in the ACT from prescription drugs and stimulants such as ice have surged in the past decade, with pharmaceutical opioids leading the way, according to a new report.

The Penington Institute’s Annual Overdose Report says the number of Australians who die from unintentional drug overdose each year continues its long-term rise, pulling away from the road toll in its impact on society.

The report, based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data, says that from 2007 to 2017, 154 people died in the ACT from accidental overdose, with 28 deaths in 2017 and 2016.

From 2013-2017, the number of people who died from pharmaceutical opioids such as oxycodone and fentanyl outpaced those from heroin, compared with the period 2003-2007.

A decade ago there had been 11 pharmaceutical opioid deaths but by 2017 this had risen to 32, compared with heroin which went from 18 to 30 deaths over the same period.

Pharmaceutical opioids – which also include morphine, codeine, pethidine, tramadol, tapentadol, buprenorphine and hydromorphone – are prescribed painkillers, with fentanyl being particularly potent.

The next highest cause of death was the anti-anxiety drugs, benzodiazepines, including the most commonly prescribed diazepam and temazepam. They become particularly dangerous when mixed with alcohol or opiates.

The number of deaths went from seven to 26, on a par with the numbers for stimulants, which the report says are primarily taken for recreational or non-medical purposes and include amphetamines in powder (speed) and tablet form but increasingly as crystal methamphetamine or ice. MDMA or ‘ecstasy’ is also classed as a stimulant in the report.

The number of deaths due to stimulants increased from eight in the earlier period to 25 by 2017.

Deaths from other pharmaceuticals also rose but by not as much, going from two to eight.

Nationally, the report says there were 1612 unintentional drug-induced deaths in 2017, almost three-quarters (74.6 per cent) of all drug-induced deaths, equating to more than four unintentional drug-induced deaths per day or one death every 5.4 hours. This compares to 1246 people who died on the roads.

Opioids were the drug group most commonly identified in unintentional drug-induced deaths in 2017, with numbers increasing from 338 in 2006 to 904 in 2017.

But heroin was the bigger killer in the capital cities, increasing dramatically since 2014 (from 156 to 271 in 2017), while deaths involving opioids outside of capital cities continue to be dominated by oxycodone, morphine and codeine (123 deaths in 2017).

There were 583 benzodiazepine deaths and 417 involving stimulants.

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program released in June showed that the ACT had the second-highest average capital city consumption of fentanyl and oxycodone.

It revealed that the ACTs opioid consumption was among the highest in the nation based on the wastewater findings for December 2018.

For every 1000 people in the ACT, about 15 doses of oxycodone and about 10 doses of fentanyl were taken every day.


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