HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.48 pm]: I rise to acknowledge that Saturday was International Overdose Awareness Day, which aims to raise awareness of the effects of drug overdose and reduce the stigma around drug-related death, as well as acknowledge the grief felt by family and friends when remembering loved ones who have died. It is also an important opportunity to try to spread the message that drug overdoses are always 100 per cent preventable.
I want to begin by expressing the need for caution about the tendency to talk about drug overdose in language that sometimes deems some people as being worthy and others unworthy. Each year, the Penington Institute releases a report on the rates of unintentional overdose in Australia. These reports are incredibly useful. They show us trends over time and highlight that overdose is a community-wide concern that can impact on any of us at any time. Counter to popular convention, overdose deaths are most prevalent amongst 30 to 59-year-olds. They affect people right across the socioeconomic spectrum. Members may recall that I spoke on the findings of last year’s report. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the data presented in this year’s report makes it clear that no progress has been made in this space; in fact, we are going in the wrong direction. The need for action is becoming increasingly urgent.
According to the report, the number of Australians who died from unintentional overdose has increased by almost 38 per cent in 10 years, from 1 171 deaths to 1 612. From 2001 to 2017, our population increased by 27.8 per cent. However, during the same period, the number of unintentional drug-induced deaths increased by 64.3 per cent. Opioids—both pharmaceutical and in their illicit forms—continue to be the primary drug group associated with unintentional drug-related deaths. However, this year, the authors of the report raised concerns that we are following in the footsteps of the United States and careering headlong into what we know has been a full-blown crisis. The patterns of overdose here are becoming disturbingly similar to those in the United States; it is just happening a few years later.
Around seven years ago, the number of overdose deaths in the US from prescription opioids began stabilising, as the number of deaths due to other drugs such as heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine skyrocketed. The lesson that we should have learnt and need to learn from the US jurisdiction is that if access to prescription drugs is reduced without addressing the underlying causes of why they are being used, people turn to different types of drugs, and that often results in fatal consequences. The data shows that the profile of overdose is also changing in Australia, and that we are going down the same path. In the last 15 years, unintentional drug-induced deaths involving stimulants have increased around eleven-fold. For the first time since 2003, heroin was involved in more unintentional overdose deaths than the next-highest opioid group, being oxycodone, morphine and codeine. Benzodiazepine was the second-most common group of drugs linked to unintentional overdose, followed by stimulants such as methamphetamine and ice.
There are some particularly concerning trends in Western Australia. WA’s rate of unintentional drug-induced deaths involving stimulants has increased by a factor of more than five. WA joins Queensland in having the highest ratios for the change in rates of unintentional drug-induced deaths involving pharmaceutical opioids. WA has seen the largest increase in the rate of unintentional drug-induced deaths involving heroin. Clearly, we should not be proud of these figures. Aside from the immeasurable social and emotional cost, the Penington Institute estimates that the more than 1 600 unintentional overdose deaths that occurred in 2017 cost our community almost $1 billion. As I said, every overdose is preventable. Reports such as that by the Penington Institute help us to understand the nature and scale of the issue that we need to address. We need to use this data to inform targeted programs to help turn our burgeoning overdose numbers around.
I want to acknowledge a couple of parents in particular whom I heard from on Friday, when I went to a morning tea to commemorate people who had died from drug overdose. The pain is raw and real and lifelong. One of the things that I know becomes unbearable for parents who have lost a child to drug overdose, apart from the irreparable trauma of having lost a child, is the stigma that is attached to that death, and how they feel so protective of their children and the lives that their children have led. It is incredibly painful. I recognise the bravery of these people and acknowledge the pain that they are going through. It is not getting better. We need to look at genuine strategies to address this. Cutting off people’s opportunities to take drugs simply means that people take drugs in other forms. We have to deal with some of the underlying causes around drug abuse.