Bracing for fentanyl: NZ experts push for safe drug-using space

Source: Re: News

The NZ Drug Foundation wants to trial an overdose prevention centre and, if approved by the Government, it would be the first centre of its kind in Aotearoa.

A small bag fentanyl powder.

By Anna Murray and Liam van Eeden of Re: News

The Foundation says providing a safe, medically-supervised space for people to use drugs will reduce harm and save lives.

Its executive director, Sarah Helm, called on the Government to support a three-year pilot of the service in Auckland’s city centre.

READ MORE: 1 in 3 drugs sold in NZ aren’t what you think

The call for this centre comes as experts fear New Zealand is unprepared for the arrival of fentanyl in the community. In July, 12 people were hospitalised in the Wairarapa for fentanyl overdoses. Those who overdosed believed they were taking cocaine or meth.

During a launch event at Auckland City Mission, Helm said: “At the moment we are turning a blind eye to overdoses and drug harm occurring among our most vulnerable in Auckland, especially those experiencing homelessness.

“That is causing untold harm for them, it is distressing for bystanders and inner-city businesses, and it takes up a lot of police and ambulance resources.

“An overdose prevention centre would offer a more compassionate, health-based approach that is also better for the wider community.”

What is an overdose prevention centre?

If the centre is approved by the Government, it would be the first in Aotearoa.

However, more than 130 sites are operating in at least 14 other countries around the world.

Auckland’s proposed centre would be available to anyone but would focus on people experiencing homelessness and using drugs that can cause people to overdose.

The centre would be staffed by people like registered nurses, peer support workers and security staff.

It would have a medically supervised consumption space and also offer basic medical services, resuscitation, naloxone, and drug checking, as well as showering and laundry facilities, hygiene and sanitary products, and hot drinks.

The NZ Drug Foundation says overseas evidence shows overdose prevention centres do not increase drug use.

For example Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Sydney has supervised more than 1.2 million injections without a single fatality since opening in 2001.

New York City’s new overdose prevention centres, which opened in late 2021, prevented at least 59 overdoses in their first three weeks of operation.

Bracing for the arrival of fentanyl

Helm said synthetic cannabinoids, which caused at least 51 deaths between 2016 and 2020, are among the drugs favoured by the drug-using community in Auckland’s city centre, but added that the drug market changes rapidly.

“If fentanyl arrives on our shores, international evidence says this community is likely to be impacted the most heavily. At the moment we have very few overdose prevention measures in place,” she said.

New figures have also found one-third of all drugs tested in New Zealand between January and July were either mixed with other substances or were something completely different.

Helm said New Zealand needs to prepare for a fentanyl outbreak now, saying it will be too late to wait until it happens.

“We can do better, we must do better. New Zealand is so behind on overdose measures. [An overdose prevention centre] is not a new idea, it’s just new to Aotearoa.”

Speaking at today’s launch event, Director of the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation in Toronto, Dr Dan Werb, said Canada’s fentanyl overdose situation was dire.

“New Zealand is in an exceptionally lucky situation to put overdose prevention measures in place in a proactive and not a reactive way. The proposal to put forward an overdose prevention site is an exceptionally forward-thinking move,” he said.

Werb said overdose prevention centres in Canada have saved the life of every single person who overdosed on site.

He said they also found people don’t take unnecessary risks simply because the services are there.

“New Zealand has an opportunity to emerge as a world leader on evidence-based and effective responses to substance use and to avert the catastrophes that other countries have experienced,” he said.

Government urged to adopt trial

The NZ Drug Foundation said that the proposed centre for Auckland needs Government support to make it legal.

Green Party MP for Auckland Central Chlöe Swarbrick is urging the Government to get on board.

“Police and ambulance staff are regularly having to respond to callouts of suspected drug overdose, sometimes repeatedly on the same day,” she said.

“Interventions like this are proven to reduce that workload, so they can get on with the rest of their job, which even the conservatives among us have got to say is a good thing.”

Former Prime Minister and Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Helen Clark, also called on the Government to greenlight the centre.

“The idea has always been to provide a space for the most marginalised, but also anyone who feels that it would be better for them to come into a safe space and test the drug, consume under supervision of a professional and ensure that in doing so, they come out alive,” she said at today’s launch event.

“We don’t want to see our whānau dying on the streets, we don’t want to see them dying alone in their homes.

“This is long overdue in our country, we need it. People aren’t going to die if we provide these kinds of spaces.

“This can be done and, believe me, it will save lives.”

Where to get help:

Alcohol Drug Helpline: call 0800 787 797 or free text 8681 for a free, confidential text conversation

Alcohol Drug Māori Helpline: 0800 787 798 for advice and referral to kaupapa Māori services

Alcohol Drug Pasifika Helpline: 0800 787 799 for advice and referral to services developed for Pacific people

Alcohol Drug Youth Helpline: 0800 787 984 for advice and referral to services for young people