• Prescription opioids are the most common drug involved in unintentional overdose deaths. (AAP)Source: AAP
For the past five years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been dying from overdoses at three times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.
Keira Jenkins

31 Aug 2020 - 9:36 PM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2020 - 12:13 PM

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are dying from drug overdoses at three times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians, according to Australia's Annual Overdose report.

The report, published by drug and alcohol research centre, the Pennington Institute, showed that 473 Indigenous people died of unintentional overdoses between 2014 to 2018.

In 2018, there were 17.3 unintentional overdose deaths per 100,000 Indigenous Australians.

This rate had almost doubled since 2009 and compared to 6.0 unintentional overdose deaths per 100,000 among non-Indigenous Australians in 2018.

Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council of South Australia (ADAC) CEO Scott Wilson told NITV News this is the fifth year in a row the report has shown that Indigenous people are dying from overdose at three times the rate of other Australians.

He called on government to "take some serious action" on the disparity in drug overdoses, and pointed out that they involved the use of pharmaceutical drugs as well as illicit substances.

Mr Wilson also said low availability of services, particularly in rural and regional areas, could be contributing to the high rates of overdose deaths.

"The further you get from an urban centre, the likelihood of you getting services are getting less and less," he said.

"Unless there's more services in rural and regional Australia that address drug and alcohol issues we're going to see this increase continue and continue."

Opioids, including heroin as well as pharmaceutical opioids like codeine and oxycodone, were involved in more than half of unintentional overdose deaths for Indigenous people (51.6 per cent) and non-Indigenous Australians (56.1 per cent). 

For Indigenous people, the next most common drugs involved in unintentional overdose deaths were stimulants, which includes methamphetamine ice (30.9 per cent).

The third most common was benzodiazepines, which includes anti-anxiety and depression medications and sleeping pills (24.3 per cent).

For non-Aboriginal people, benzodiazepines are the second most common drug involved in unintentional overdose deaths (32.2 per cent) and stimulants were the third most common (21.7 per cent).

In many cases it is a combination of drugs, and sometimes alcohol that leads to overdose deaths, said John Ryan, CEO of the Pennington Institute, which published the report.

Mr Ryan said many people don't realise that each drug taken "amplifies" the risk of overdose.

"The picture of overdose is that it's actually often four or more drugs and that could include cannabis and alcohol plus opioids, plus benzodiazepines, for example, or meth plus alcohol or benzos.

"It's often drugs in combination and the thing is, especially with benzodiazepines, they stay in your system for a long time so they can amplify the risk of overdose the day after you've taken them.

"There's a lot of ground to be made up in terms of how we deal with these issues and how communities understand them."

'They are loved ones'

Mr Ryan said overdose is an issue that can affect anyone. 

"If you look at the data overall, the people who are affected by overdose are rich and poor, and in between - it's pretty evenly spread across the income range," he said.

"There is a concentration of people between 40-60 but it's also really spread across the age range so it is affecting people in their 20s and in their 60s and 70s and everywhere in between. 

"I think that's something that we've got to get our heads around."

While Mr Wilson said the report was released on International Overdose Awareness Day, which provides a 'perfect opportunity' to discuss overdose deaths, and remove the stigma that surrounds the topic.

"I think most people, when they think of overdose, they typically think of a heroin addict or 'user', a down and out, somebody who has fallen along the wayside," he said.

"In actual fact these people are our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters, our uncles, our aunties. 

"They're actual human beings that are loved and are part of a loved group of people."

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