New Zealand drug overdoses double in past five years heightening calls to better prepare for 'opioid crisis'

Drug overdoses have more than doubled over the past five years, a new report has found, heightening calls for urgent action for on lifesaving preventative measures.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation said alarm bells should be ringing for the Government to stop neglecting overdoses in public policy.

It comes as countries around the world grapple with an "opioid endemic", with warnings for New Zealand to better prepare for a looming widespread "opioid crisis". 

There was a 54 percent increase in drug overdose deaths between 2017 and 2021, despite the population increasing by six percent, the report found. The increase was largely driven by growing numbers of deaths from opioids, alcohol, and benzodiazepines.

The coroner data identified 702 overdose death cases between 2017 and 2021.

The data includes individuals where 'overdose' has been determined to be the cause of death and excludes suicides.

In most cases multiple substances were identified in the toxicology report, therefore, the report said it is impossible to definitively identify which substance or combination was responsible for the death.

Toxicology reports showed that 42 percent of people who died of an overdose over the past five years had five or more substances in their system.

Prescription and over-the-counter medications also feature heavily, with at least one medicine listed on the toxicology report in 77 percent of cases.

There was a dramatic increase in open cases where the finding has not yet been finalised. This could likely be due to delays in coronial inquiries.

Drug Foundation Executive Director Sarah Helm said overdoses are preventable but public policy has neglected the issue for decades.

"Every overdose death is tragic and has a huge impact on whānau and communities. The fact we’ve seen overdoses increase over the last five years is simply unacceptable," Helm said.

"There is so much we could and should be doing to prevent these deaths. The increasing numbers of people dying from overdose should be ringing alarm bells for policymakers."

The report found Māori are disproportionately affected by drug harm and fatal drug overdose, with data showing that per capita, Māori are three times more likely to die of an overdose than Pākehā.

Helm said that while fundamental law reform to implement a health-based approach is key to driving down overdoses, funding for naloxone and an Overdose Prevention Centre pilot are two quick and inexpensive interventions the Government could swiftly roll out.

"Naloxone is an incredibly effective medicine that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and we want it in the hands of as many people as possible. The Drug Foundation has been trying to get New Zealand better prepared for a widespread opioid crisis like we're seeing in other parts of the world," Helm said.

Medsafe recently relaxed some restrictions around injectable naloxone and the foundation has submitted a funding application to Pharmac for the nasal spray form of naloxone called Nyxoid.

Across the world, there has been alarming year-on-year increases in overdose fatalities, particularly attributed to potent opioids such as fentanyl in what is being called an "opioid epidemic".

The NZ Drug Foundation hopes the report helps encourage New Zealand to put in place measures that will reduce overdose fatalities so we can get better prepared for an opioid crisis while we can.