Drug Foundation CEO on overdoses: 'We are failing Māori'

By Muriwai Hei

Māori are being failed. That's the view of the head of the NZ Drug Foundation about new figures that show Māori are three times more likely to die of an overdose than Pākehā. Sarah Helm says the issue has been neglected despite the catastrophic effect on Māori. From the year 2017 to the year 2021, there's been a huge spike in the number of Māori who overdose.

The foundation's executive director, Sarah Helm, says data shows that Māori men with comorbidities, mental health issues, and housing issues suffer the greatest harm from synthetic cannabinoids.

"So we desperately need to put some better measures in place. We are failing. We are failing New Zealanders. We are failing Māori in particular.”

The foundation found the main drugs responsible for the overdoses were synthetic cannabis, opioids and antidepressants. But a lack of promotion of those overdoses was another reason for the spike in numbers. Māori were overrepresented in synthetic cannabinoid overdoses, making up 67% of cases. Pākehā/Europeans made up 16% of synthetic cannabinoid deaths, and Pacific peoples made up 17%.

“The things that really stood out for me were twofold. The number, 700 New Zealanders, equates to more than half of the road toll. So in the past year, more than half of the road toll equivalent passed away from a drug overdose. Drug overdose has been an issue that we have neglected. We haven't thought about it seriously enough.

"Perhaps also there's a stigma attached to a drug overdose. There's never a lot of noise about it. People feel a lot of shame when it happens. The other thing that really stood out was a very tragically high number of Māori that have been a victim of these fatalities. so the impact on Maori has been catastrophic I would say,” Helm said.

An overdose prevention centre is one of the solutions the NZ Drug Foundation is promoting plus outreach strategies for overdose prevention.