A MERGER between two drug and alcohol recovery services will combat drug and alcohol overdose deaths on the Mornington Peninsula, which are climbing back towards pre-pandemic levels.
Windana drug and alcohol recovery service is merging with TaskForce Community Agency, a not-for-profit with a focus on drug and alcohol misuse, youth and family services, education and employment.
Data released last Thursday (9 November) by the Victorian Coroners Court shows overdose deaths in the past decade are back to alarming levels, with 21 on the peninsula in 2013 before dropping to nine in 2019 and climbing back to 15 in 2022.
In contrast, in Frankston – traditionally a high drug overdose region – overdose deaths have fallen from 21 in 2019 to 16 in 2022.
Across the state in 2022 there was an increase in overdose deaths — with 549 in 2022 and 500 in 2021. Last year’s figures were the highest since at least 2009, but likely the highest on record for Victoria.
Chris Christoforou, CEO of drug-testing advocate the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, said he was deeply concerned about a general surge in fatal overdoses in Victoria during 2022.
Christoforou said the rising number of fatal overdoses on the peninsula and many parts of Melbourne was indicative of a preventable crisis with harm reduction measures such as overdose prevention centres and drug testing urgently needed to save lives.
The City of Melbourne again had the highest number of heroin related fatal overdoses – 24 in 2022, almost twice that of Yarra (14).
“This outcome is no less than catastrophic,” Christoforou said.
The Coroners Court data also reveals that while pharmaceutical substances continue to contribute to the largest portion of fatal overdoses (just under 75 per cent), fatal overdoses involving alcohol and illegal drugs are the highest since at least 2009. VAADA notes that there has been an upswing in the number of fatal overdoses occurring in regional Victoria, up from 101 in 2021 to 135 in 2022, with options for treatment and support lacking in regional and rural communities.
Across the state, heroin related fatal overdoses were the highest since 2000 with the drug contributing to 230 fatal overdoses – an increase of more than 33 per cent from 2021 (173 fatal overdoses).
Both methamphetamine and GHB related fatal overdoses have surpassed previous records. Methamphetamine continues to contribute to significant harms and the high death rate is a reminder of the need to invest further in treatment and other support services.
Alcohol related fatal overdose is also the highest since at least 2009 in Victoria, with 173 Victorians fatally overdosing with alcohol as a contributing factor.
“Sadly, this is not a surprise. We know, with surging alcohol consumption during the pandemic coupled with burgeoning treatment waitlists and a laissez fair approach to liquor regulation (particularly with the availability of online deliveries) that we would see alcohol related harms increase,” Christoforou said.
“This data provides yet another example of how public health reforms such as the decriminalising of public intoxication are vital to saving lives.”
Novel psychoactive substances (NPS) are drugs that, while mimicking traditional drugs, are often more harmful. In 2022, there were 46 fatal overdoses with NPS a contributing factor, up from two in 2018.
“VAADA with 77 other organisations, has called on the Victorian government to introduce drug checking as a matter of priority to reduce these harms,” Christoforou said.
International evidence indicated that up to almost 90 per cent of people discarded the substance after discovering it was hazardous from a drug checking service.
VAADA is the peak body that represents more than 80 alcohol and other drug services across Victoria.
Windana CEO Andrea McLeod said alcohol abuse was a “societal” issue that was largely ignored but had increased since the pandemic.
McLeod said there had been an increase in substance abuse since COVID and lockdowns, and services were seeing the results of that now.
“People have been at home, not getting out, not getting the support they need and there has been a definite flow-on effect in the community,” she said. “By joining with Taskforce, we can work on this together we can provide wraparound support and compassionate care to vulnerable youth, adults and their families in this area.”
In Victoria, all deaths from suspected non-natural causes, including suspected overdoses, are required to be reported to the Coroners Court. Suspected overdoses are recorded by the court in the Victorian overdose deaths register, which is the data source for this report.
Victorian state coroner John Cain said overdose deaths remained a “concerning public health issue and we must continue to improve access to supports, treatment and education”.
“Addressing drug-related harms requires an understanding of the complexities around access to drugs and alcohol and the drivers of use,” he said.
“Through coronial data we can contribute to this understanding – providing vital insight into ongoing and emerging drug-related harms and how best to save lives.”
A copy of the report can be accessed at coronerscourt.vic.gov.au/victorian-overdose-deaths-2013-2022