Getting naloxone into the community was recommended by the World Health Organisation, and some countries like the USA, Australia, Scotland, Wales have made excellent progress, but here in New Zealand it has been difficult to get naloxone on the drug policy agenda let alone into the community, despite the fact that Coroner data indicates that every week someone dies of an opioid overdose.
Why should this be so difficult when naloxone has no abuse potential, is relatively cheap, easy to administer and is so effective at reversing overdose? Unfortunately, the failure to deliver a humane and effective drug policy has little to do with a lack of evidence, understanding or science, but much more to do with a lack of interest, care or regard for people who use illicit drugs, the people who inject drugs (PWID) are often even lower down the stigma pecking order, and naloxone is primarily a service for PWID.
In August 2013 fifty-five agencies were represented at an invitiaton-only National Think Tank Event led and coordinating by the New Zealand Drug Foundation. After two days debating priorities, values and strategy, to shape the future of drug policy in Aotearoa, the NZ Drug Foundation produced a 12,000 word vision statement, that became known as the Wellington Declaration – but surprisingly this comprehensive document failed to even mention naloxone.
A year later in August 2014 in it’s Matters of Substance Magazine rather than present a robust case for naloxone distribution the NZ Drug Foundation magazine framed Naloxone take-home as an issue open to debate and offered arguments for and against. This included some insulting arguments against naloxone distribution including “there could be an unintended consequence from widening availability of naloxone” and “people could become less cautious about their drug use because they know life-saving treatment is close at hand”.
In October 2014 after a new government was elected the NZ Drug Foundation prepared a twenty page Briefing Paper to Parliament designed to identify key drug policy priorities to provide ‘opportunities to make real reductions in drug related harm‘ (p.3). While the document emphasised the need to secure New Zealand representation at the United Nations international meetings (see below), and specifically highlighted the need to tackle deaths caused by huffing solvents, it astonishingly made no reference or representation to the new government concerning fatal opioid overdoses or the need to distribute naloxone into the hands of users, families and friends.
With this lack of formal commitment to naloxone from the lead NGO organisation for drug users/drug agencies in New Zealand, it was hardly surprising that when the new government eventually rolled out its five year Drug Policy Strategy 2015-2020 on 28th August 2015, the policy document made no mention of naloxone whatsoever. Interestingly, the new drug policy did, as promoted in the NZ Drug Foundation Briefing Paper, prioritise a commitment to ensure New Zealand would be represented at international UNGASS meetings (p.22).
Belatedly, Matters of Substance published a better informed and considered magazine feature on Naloxone after the embarrassing ‘for or against’ debate, and then in June 2015 the New Zealand Drug Foundation produced a stand alone Naloxone Background Paper. However, while this discussion paper includes some excellent sources and appears to offer a robust argument for reducing overdose, it is also undermined and littered with some odd statements and inclusions, such as “Due to the controversial nature of drug harm reduction and naloxone access”, and it confusingly recommends consideration for: “legal protection from arrest for drug possession and/or the act of injecting someone for people who administer naloxone in an emergency situation”, [my highlight in red], as well as recommending “reclassifying naloxone as restricted medication” rather than pharmacy only, largely it seems, to ensure that anyone who accesses naloxone receives training. The briefing paper also aired some odd arguments against naloxone: “There may also be views that wider access is not necessary with naloxone already available in hospitals and with advanced paramedics” and it further “[naloxone] will lead to greater risk taking behaviour”.
There are other disconcerting aspects buried within what might otherwise appear a solid report arguing for greater naloxone distribution, such as the omission of data concerning the high percentage of overdose deaths that occur before the medics arrive, for example, a London study by Hickman et al (2007:320) found that when an ambulance was called the person who overdosed was already dead before the arrival of the ambulance in 85% of cases. Had this information been included in the NZ Drug Foundation background paper they would surely have given greater emphasis to ensuring naloxone is in the hands of People Who Inject Drugs (PWID), their friends and family, but the report seems to priority naloxone training over naloxone distribution. The recommendations in the paper also includes loop holes that seem to almost invite a piecemeal approach to distributing naloxone, by suggesting various components of naloxone distribution could be seen as possible ‘separate options’ for consideration.
While this paper was primarily about the role of naloxone to reduce overdose death, it was an ideal opportunity to mention closely related strategies known to reduce OD deaths in New Zealand, such as the benefit of allowing prescribing injectable drugs in New Zealand to people who continually inject rather than restrict them to oral methadone which is then invariably injected, or the effectiveness of Drug Consumption Rooms in reducing overdose. Here’s a link to the report that includes my highlighted concerns and critique.
Despite the absence of any clear formal commitment to wider naloxone distribution, the campaigning in Aotearoa NZ must continue for naloxone take-home, and indeed for other strategies to reduce overdose and drug policy harm, including: drug checking; prescribing injectable opioids to opioid injectors; a Good Samaritan Law to end arrests for possession and manslaughter when co-users call for emergency help; end the risk of criminalisation for possession of needles and utensils in New Zealand (unless proven to be obtained from the needle exchanges); and establishing Drug Consumption Rooms.
In view of this failure to put naloxone on the formal agenda, it was somewhat incongruous see the Director of the NZ Drug Foundation on International Overdose Day showcase a persuasively well-argued newspaper article (with no sense of irony or doublespeak), asserting that New Zealand must do more to tackle overdose and distribute naloxone. If the New Zealand Drug Foundation had proactively promoted the need for naloxone, it could have been quite different. It’s New Zealand Drug Foundation in its pivotal drug policy advisory role, that needs to do more to tackle overdose and distribute naloxone.
It is hard to understand given the insights clearly displayed in their newspaper piece on International Overdose Day why the New Zealand Drug Foundation have omitted naloxone from important documents (the Wellington Declaration & the Harm Reduction Briefing to Parliament) and why they haven’t campaigned when and where it matters, for naloxone take-home from the outset. They did however, as promoted and prioritised in the harm reduction Briefing to Parliament, go to Vienna and New York and engage in the inertia of the UN drug control system that is committed to a ‘drug’ free world.
With an alternative emphasis on national drug policy reforms in New Zealand rather than international networking, important drug policy harms could be tackled. Key issues that need tackling here in New Zealand Drug Policy include:
The 2016 CND and UNGASS meetings predictably delivered no tangible positive outcomes or progress. It’s now 2017 and New Zealand users, families and friends are still unable to gain easy access to naloxone. While nations like New Zealand, inexcusably fail to deliver easy to implement drug policy reforms at a national level, and instead invest considerable energy on high maintenance-low outcome international drug policy reform gatherings, serious harms will continue. A growing number of drug reformers are recognising the need for genuine policy transformation.
In the meantime, people who use illicit drugs are needlessly suffering, some are dying. No naloxone take home – no excuse, it is literally a matter of life or death.
Dr Julian Buchanan, is a retired Associate Professor, Victoria University of Wellington, Institute of Criminology
31st August 2015 on International Overdose Day. (updated 16th Feb 2017)