Wednesday 25 May 2011

heroin - part IV

In the last post, I noted that the deaths from heroin overdoses went from 6 in 1964 to 737 in 1998. Why the sudden increase?

Some clever people sat down about 10 years ago and wrote a paper entitled Estimating the number of current regular heroin users in NSW and Australia 1997-2002. Here are their median estimates for that period for NSW:

1997 - 35,300
1998 - 48,000
1999 - 48,200
2000 - 43,900
2001 - 22,100
2002 - 19,900

On page 19 of the report we find this fascinating graph - "Number of opioid overdose deaths among persons aged 15-54 years, 1980-2002". It covers both NSW and the rest of Australia. 

What the table of heroin users and the graph shows is that the number of deaths (and presumably users) started to take off in the mid 1990s, reaching a peak in 1999 before dropping sharply in 2001. The primary reason for the fall seems to be a heroin drought around that time.

Let's go back to one of Bob Carr's justifications for the injecting room:

The ultimate argument ? It might just save lives – the lives of people who are using heroin until a time ( often their late 30s ) when they get sick of it and decide to make a break with that life. We need to sustaint them till they reach that point. 
After looking at the graph above, if you ask me, the biggest life saver in the last decade has been a shortage of heroin, which has more than halved the number of users in NSW. If the estimates are correct and users dropped from 48,200 at their peak to 19,900 just a few years later, then that would produce a 60% drop in deaths from overdoses. That's mighty powerful stuff.

But does that make an injecting room poor policy? My mind is still open - there is more to come.

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