Māori three times more likely to die from drug overdose than Pākehā

By Will Trafford

The emergence of the Fentanyl, responsible for 12 overdoses in the Wairarapa in June was of concern given 'alarming year-on-year increases in overdose fatalities' around the globe. Photo / Getty Images

Māori are three times more likely to die from a drug overdose than Pākehā according to new figures from the NZ Drug Foundation.

The number of fatal overdoses has increased from 111 in 2017 to 171 in 2021 according to the foundation’s latest annual report.

The 54 percent increase in overdoses during a time when the population rose by only 6 percent showed a lack of government focus according to the report’s authors.

“Overdoses have been neglected in public policy in Aoteaora New Zealand, as have the physical health impacts of drug use.” Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm says.

“Every year, New Zealanders’ lives are lost to drug overdoses. Every one of these people’s lives deserved to be saved.

Deaths from drugs were up across the board, by far the largest number was from Opioids which took the lives of 333 people between 2017 and 2021.

Alcohol was the second highest killer, claiming 129 lives, followed by Benzodiazepines at 88 and then synthetics at 57.

Māori were overrepresented in synthetic cannabinoid overdoses, making up 67 percent of cases, despite being just 17 percent of the population. 

Pākehā made up 16 percent of synthetic cannabinoid deaths, and Pacific Peoples 17 percent.

In the majority of overdose cases, people had a number of drugs in their system when they died; this includes illicit drugs, alcohol and medicines.

“Over the last 5 years, a massive 42 percent of cases listed 5 or more substances on the toxicology report. 91 percent of cases listed 2 or more substances.” The report says.

“Only 9% of cases listed just one substance on the toxicology report.”

Alcohol was attributed to 129 cases, and the rate had over doubled between 2017 and 2021.

“Alcohol was listed on the toxicology report of 47% of closed overdose cases in the past five years (199 of 419 cases)” the report says.

The emergence of the Fentanyl, responsible for 12 overdoses in the Wairarapa in June was of concern given 'alarming year-on-year increases in overdose fatalities' across the globe.

Nearly 108,000 people died overdosing on the opioid in the United States last year.

Helm said drug checking and the early warning system for synthetic cannabinoids was helping particularly Māori, but was calling on the government to create an Overdose Prevention Centre pilot in Tāmaki Makaurau.

Such a pilot would allow a person to come in, non-judgmentally receive drug checking services and to take a substance in an environment with medical staff on hand.

She also called on the government to urgently increase availability of Naloxone to susceptible communities.

“Opioids feature heavily in this overdose data, however access to the opioid overdose reversal drug, naloxone, remains limited in New Zealand. Allowing more organisations to distribute funded naloxone ampoules, as well as providing funding to freely distribute the easy-to-use naloxone nasal spray Nyxoid, will allow family members, peers, and lay people in the community to respond to opioid overdoses.’ Helm said.

Public Interest Journalism, funded through NZ On Air