September 27, 2023

Fears of ‘tidal wave’ of overdoses if synthetic opioids hit city

By Cara Waters
September 27, 2023 — 2.58pm
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Melbourne’s CBD could be hit by a wave of drug overdoses if a supervised injecting room is not built before an expected arrival of synthetic opioids in the city, according to health experts.

A coalition of 18 health and medical peak bodies and health unions, including the Australian Medical Association and Royal College of General Practitioners, said that 40 overdoses had occurred in the three years since the Victorian government first committed to opening an injecting room in the city in June 2020.

President of the Australian Medical Association Victoria, Dr Jill Tomlinson, calls on the government to open an injecting room in the CBD.Credit: Will Hawke

Standing in Baptist Place, a Melbourne laneway where many overdoses have occurred, Dr Jill Tomlinson, president of the Australian Medical Association Victoria, said that on average one person dies each month in the CBD.

“These deaths are entirely preventable,” she said. “The CBD is currently an unsupervised injecting facility and that means that people are injecting all around the CBD.”

Dr Paul MacCartney, addiction medicine specialist at community health provider cohealth, said the expected arrival of the synthetic opioids meant deaths may increase by ten times.

“We are hearing from our colleagues in the UK, that with a reduction in heroin supply around the world, synthetic opioids are arriving in the UK and they will arrive in Australia and there will be a tidal wave of overdoses,” he said.

The push for a safe injecting room in the city is designed to lower the number of overdoses in the CBD.Credit: Jason South

“It’s vital that we provide the option for people to get into treatment before this tidal wave arrives.” MacCartney said that in the US, there were up to 100,000 deaths a year from synthetic opioids, which is double the number of people dying from gun deaths.

“What we know in Australia is that up until now, synthetic opioids haven’t arrived in any great sense,” he said.

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Federal police seized 11.2 kilograms of the drug in August last year and warned that international drug syndicates were trying to import the deadly opioid fentanyl in unprecedented volumes.

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“We assume that that was just an entree,” MacCartney said. “We are hearing from our UK colleagues that the Taliban have reduced opium production and as a result, heroin supplies are drying up and synthetic opioids are starting to fill that space in the UK. Our concern is that they’ll start to fill that space here soon enough.”

MacCartney said that when the synthetic opioids arrived, he expected there would be more overdoses in supervised injecting rooms and on the streets.

“The tragedy will be that the people who don’t use those services where they don’t exist, they will be dying in the street,” he said. “At rates far higher than the one-a-month we’ve talked about in the CBD, we’ll be talking in the tens of people dying a month.”

MacCartney said he was already treating some patients who had ordered synthetic opioids online.

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He said he hoped that Daniel Andrews resigning as premier would not affect the government’s commitment to a safe injecting room in the CBD.

The Andrews government opened a supervised injecting facility in Richmond in 2018 and the room was made permanent in May.

The government had hoped to open a second facility in the former Yooralla building opposite Flinders Street Station, close to Degraves Street, because of its proximity to drug use and overdoses.

Protests from residents and businesses meant that was put on the backburner and the Salvation Army building on Bourke Street was recently proposed as a potential site.

A government spokeswoman said the government was still considering an independent review by former police commissioner Ken Lay, which was delivered in May and included recommendations for preferred injecting facility sites.

Lisa has lived experience of drug use in the CBD, including in Baptist Place. Credit: Will Hawke

Lisa, a former drug user, said she had previously used drugs in the Baptist Place laneway, which had been known as a safe space before street lights and a tap were removed as a deterrent.

“Because it was known as a safe space within the community, it meant that if you did drop, there was someone who would come along and whack you and wake you up,” she said.

Victoria Police declined to comment.

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Cara Waters is the city editor for The Age.Connect via Twitter, Facebook or email.
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