Nearly 1800 drug-induced deaths were recorded in 2021 – equivalent to five per day – a new UNSW report has found.

Overdose death

Natural and semi-synthetic pharmaceutical opioids like morphine and oxycodone were the primary opioids involved in overdose deaths, followed by heroin.

new report out of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) suggests Australia’s progress in reducing drug-related deaths has stalled.


Released earlier this week, the report contains preliminary estimates suggesting that there were 1788 drug-induced deaths among Australians in 2021, comprised 1% of all registered deaths across the country for that year.


According to the report, the rate of drug-induced deaths increased on average by 3.5% per year from 2002–2017, where it peaked at 8.2 deaths per 100,000 Australians.


However, while the researchers have not seen evidence of a further increase since this peak, the there has been no substantial drop either.


RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins used the report’s findings to call for action, stating that the ‘war on drugs’ mindset has gotten Australia ‘nowhere’.


‘If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is,’ she said.


‘We have made in-roads in Australia, including recent announcements such as the Queensland Government expanding police drug diversion programs for people carrying small amounts of illicit drugs. However, as the RACGP has noted recently – we have a long way to go.


‘New South Wales doesn’t even offer police the discretion to send a person to a diversion program, only the ACT and the Queensland have given the green light to pill testing, and the entire country has just two medically supervised injecting facilities.


‘There are also limitations affecting people across Australia including access to ready and affordable drug and alcohol treatment, particularly for those with opioid dependence. That must change if we want to reverse current trends and save lives.’


More detailed data contained in the report, collated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, shows that:

  • more than three in five drug-induced deaths occurred among males
  • overdose and other drug-induced deaths were most common among 45–54-year-olds (26% of deaths) and 35–44-year-olds (24% of deaths)
  • 73% of deaths occurred in major cities
  • 12% of those who died from drug-induced death had a personal history of self-harm
  • 76% of drug-induced deaths occurred at home.

Natural and semi-synthetic pharmaceutical opioids like morphine and oxycodone were the primary opioids involved in overdose deaths, followed by heroin.
Despite the sobering statistics, Dr Hester Wilson, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Alcohol and Other Drugs, believes there are signs of progress that can help build momentum in Australia for more appropriate harm minimisation measures.
However, she also said more can be done and that there is no time to lose.
‘Governments across Australia must ramp up their efforts and save lives,’ she said.
‘It’s critical that we significantly scale up access to … opioid dependence treatment programs, including pharmacotherapy services like methadone or buprenorphine, [because they] can make all the difference.
‘A key factor reported on recently is cost, with medications on the opioid treatment program requiring patients to pay a private pharmacy dispensing fee of between $5–15 a day. Many people with opioid dependence simply can’t afford this and so they go without.
‘Let’s remedy that right away, because every life matters.’
Dr Wilson also said diversion programs can make an ‘enormous difference’ but said authorities should prioritise a health-first approach for personal consumption of illicit drugs and avoid ‘three strike’ policies.
‘People who are using drugs often have tremendous difficultly quitting so we should not put an arbitrary limit on the number of times they can be diverted from the criminal justice system,’ she said.
‘We don’t do the same for people quitting cigarettes, and really, it’s no different – quitting a harmful and addictive substance takes time.
‘It’s also vital that we boost access to naloxone … More must be done to get this drug into the hands of people who need it most – including people at risk of overdose and their loved ones.
‘It’s vital to spread the message that naloxone is now free under the Take Home Naloxone program at locations including pharmacies, treatment centres, needle and syringe programs and custodial release programs and you don’t need a prescription.’
Melanie Walker, CEO of the Australian Alcohol and other Drugs Council estimates that up to 500,000 people are missing out in alcohol an drug treatment due to a lack of funding and capacity – more than twice the approximately 200,000 current recipients of care.
‘In order to save lives, governments need to ensure that people who need drug treatment are able to access it,’ she said. 
‘It’s also important that a range of evidence-based treatment and harm reduction services are available to people – both in the community and in custodial settings – if we are to prevent deaths and improve health outcomes for individuals, families and communities.’
For Dr Wilson, it comes down to offering people in need help, support and compassion.
‘Throwing them into gaol or judging them or pushing them to the margins of society doesn’t achieve anything and, in my view, diminishes us as a nation,’ she said.
‘Every person’s life matters, it’s as simple as that.’
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