As much of the industrialised world faces dramatic and often unprecedented increases in drug fatalities, International Overdose Awareness Day – which took place on August 31st – aimed to draw much-needed attention to this preventable crisis.

The latest European Drug Report, published by the European Monitoring centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), notes that almost one in three drug overdose cases in Europe in 2016, took place in the UK.

Virgin Unite, drug policy reform, international overdose awareness day

In a fact sheet, the EMCCDA highlights the full extent of the crisis: ‘In total 8441 overdose deaths, mainly related to heroin and other opioids, are estimated to have occurred in Europe in 2015 representing a six per cent increase on the 2014 figure of 7950 in the 30 countries. Preliminary data for 2016 suggest that this increasing trend is continuing. Europe’s 1.3 million problem opioid users are among the most vulnerable.’

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, PHAC, at least 2,458 Canadians died last year as a result of opioid misuse, but perhaps the most startling figures are those from the US, where estimates put the number of drug fatalities in 2016 at 59,000 to 65,000. What more can we do to prevent yet another family from receiving the news that their loved one has died?

In a recent blog, Rick Lines, Executive Director of Harm Reduction International, drew attention to the organisation’s 25th conference in Montreal, where ‘They Talk, We Die’ quickly became the slogan of front-line drug workers and activists frustrated with the political inactivity that blocks potentially life-saving harm reduction practices.

Virgin Unite, drug policy reform, international overdose awareness day

So what can we do? As the EMCDDA points out, simple reforms and provisions can go a long way in reducing the harms associated with current drug use. Drug consumption rooms (DCRs) are going to be an ever-increasing conversation and now operate in six EU countries, and Norway. In Canada, pop-up harm reduction services are now taking shape thanks to dedicated front-line workers. It was reported that over 50 people visited an unsanctioned pop-up site in Ottawa, Canada in just three days. Marilou Gagnon,the president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association and one of the organisers, said that there was not a single fatality among those who used the facility, with one visitor showing signs of potential overdose and needing close monitoring.

Key to saving lives is Naloxone, an overdose reversal drug that can easily be administered with very little training. There’s been a growing call on both sides of the Atlantic for police officers and other emergency services to carry Naloxone, and the interim report released recently by the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis also recommends that Naloxone should be carried by every law enforcement officer in the United States. 

One of the greatest causes of frustration remains the law itself. The criminalisation of drug possession does not deter drug use, but punitive laws reinforce stigma and often prevent people from seeking help. Decriminalisation, on the other hand, creates room for an inclusive dialogue between drug consumers,– those in recovery, and policy makers. Just as we wouldn’t think of punishing those who suffer from alcoholism or food addiction, it’s time that we saw the same simple logic with other substances. 

Virgin Unite, drug policy reform, international overdose awareness day

International Overdose Awareness Day is a day of reflection and remembrance; we need to remember and see the faces of those who have been impacted. And much as the drug death figures are shocking, it is easy to lose perspective. Campaign groups such as Anyone’s Child make it clear that an overdose could indeed happen in anyone’s family. Many supporters of Anyone’s Child have received the dreaded phone call or that knock at the door to be informed of a loss to their family.

There will also be hundreds of people that will quietly pass away with no family members to be informed and no obituary written in the local paper. These are the truly forgotten casualties of current drug policies, and these are the people that we need to remember every day, as we continue to work to prevent these avoidable deaths.

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