Australians are underestimating the danger of popular sleeping pills and sedatives “at their peril”, as a record 142 people die every month in accidental drug overdoses, a major new report warns.
Annual drug deaths almost doubled in the decade to 2016, a period that claimed 13,471 lives through unintentional overdose and saw drug deaths overtake the road toll.
Legal pharmaceutical painkillers are the leading killer, but most people are dying with a combination of substances in their system, including alcohol, heroin, amphetamines and synthetic cannabis.
One dangerous combination is prescription painkillers, sleeping tablets and alcohol.
The Penington Institute, which published the overdose report, warned that benzodiazepines – sleeping and anxiety pills common in Australian homes – were now contributing to hundreds of deaths each year.
“You don’t need a drug problem to overdose,” said Penington Institute’s chief executive John Ryan.
Just like opioids and alcohol, he said benzodiazepines such as Valium (diazepam) and temazepam depressed the respiratory system. Combine the three, and the effect was even worse.
Those hit hardest by the country’s overdose crisis include middle-aged Australians (the riskiest age for drug use was 40 to 49) and those living in regional areas. And while men are more likely to die through drug misadventure, drug deaths among women are increasing at greater rates than the overall population.
University lecturer Dr James Rowe, 46, first started taking speed and heroin when he was a young bartender “having fun” and “pushing boundaries”.
Later, drugs became a means to attempt to cope with poor mental health.
“The first time it got a bit out of hand was in response to a bit of a nervous breakdown. I was doing a PhD at the time and just had a real crisis,” Dr Rowe said. “I wasn’t really able to cope with it.”
He has witnessed how quickly overdose fatalities can occur.
About six years ago he was with a friend at a home in Melbourne’s south-east when the man collapsed after drinking heavily and taking a powder bought from a street dealer. Paramedics got there within 10 minutes, but he couldn’t be revived.
“I was walking behind him to the front door where a cab was going to take him home and caught him as he went down,” he said.
“One minute he is laughing and joking, then the next he is gone.
“There is no awareness that you’re coming to the end of your life.”
“It’s pretty simple. It slows down your breathing to the point that you don’t get enough oxygen to your brain,” Mr Ryan said.
The Penington Institute report also painted a bleak picture about the use of illicit drugs. From 2002 to 2006, there were 554 heroin deaths, but that surged to 1183 between 2012 and 2016.
Amphetamine deaths more than quadrupled from 298 to 1237.
There is also growing concern over the abuse of opioids fentanyl, pethidine and tramadol, with deaths associated with the painkillers growing from 55 to 746 over the same period.
Mr Ryan said Australia was at risk of following a similar path to the United States, where almost 30,000 people died after taking fentanyl or similar compounds in 2017.
He called for better access to drug treatments, which were especially limited in regional areas where it could be difficult to find GPs and pharmacists willing to provide opioid substitution treatments.
“Fortunately overdose has not personally touched every family in Australia, but it is not unimaginable that unless we prevent the growth, then that will be happening,” he said.