Globally, young people who use drugs are dying of overdose on a regular basis, while very few efforts are being made to prevent this. The crisis of overdoses within the community of young people who use drugs is as tragic as it is avoidable. In 2005, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction released a report titled Overdose — a major cause of avoidable death among young people. The report condemns the lack of efforts made across Europe to reduce the number of overdose deaths being seen among the community of people who use drugs. The report points to the fact that the contributing factors towards the high overdose death rate across Europe is known, but still we are not implementing the necessary policies to prevent this. The report states that the main reason there is still overdose deaths, despite this being entirely avoidable, is a lack of focus being placed on overdose, with resources instead being funneled into HIV prevention efforts such as needle and syringe exchange programs, as well as opioid substitution treatment.
This lack of consideration for overdose prevention is well represented by the UN’s World Drug Report from 2005, issued in two volumes. Across the two volumes, amounting to over 400 pages, the word “overdose” is only mentioned four times. Thankfully, there is now an increased focus on overdose deaths globally, with the most recent World Drug Report for 2020, which is instead split into six volumes, containing 225 uses of the word overdose across its 432 pages.
While reliable data is hard to come by, it is clear that this increased focus on the issue of overdoses has not led to any improved efforts to prevent them. In 2010, it was estimated that up to 253,000 deaths worldwide were related to drug use. In 2015, that number had increased to 450,000. By 2017, that number was up to 585,000.
While there have been positive steps made in recent years, namely an increase in the number of drug consumption rooms across the world, it is demonstrably clear that we are not doing enough to prevent these avoidable deaths. This International Overdose Awareness Day, we need action to be taken. To mitigate the risk of overdose among young people who use drugs, we need to see the following changes be implemented:
i) Governments fund the scaling up and access to OST at all shelters in locations where the capacity for OST initiation exists through partnership with civil society and academic institutions.
ii) That governments enable civil society and academic institutions to establish opioid overdose prevention programmes, that focus on education and skills-based training of people who use opioids. Additionally, increased community-based access to naloxone in health and substance use treatment centres and the provision of naloxone to OST clients, paired with appropriate administration training, is needed.
iii) That governments fund and allow community-led supervised consumption sites to open in locations where there is a demand. To facilitate these sites, governments must also decriminalize the possession and use of all drugs so as to truly fight to end overdoses in their countries.