Bendigo Community Health Services has joined the chorus of pleas for the introduction of a 'pill testing' system to prevent a growing surge in fatal overdoses.
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Bendigo lost 58 people to unintentional overdose in the period 2017-2021, up from 34 in 2012-2016.
It's why the Bendigo service was one of 77 health and community agencies to sign a joint statement by RMIT University and the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association highlighting "the dire need for a drug checking and enhanced public alert system to be implemented in Victoria".
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Bendigo Community Health Services executive Dale Hardy told the Advertiser the service takes a harm-minimisation approach to its drug and alcohol services.
"Pill testing fits within the harm-minimisation framework and we are fully in support of anything that reduces deaths in the community," he said.
The call came in response to "a surge in fatal overdose of novel psychoactive substances (NPS), which mimic established substances but are often more harmful".
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, "other names given to this group of drugs include research chemicals, analogues, legal highs, herbal highs, bath salts, novel psychoactive substances and synthetic drugs."
People who used drugs were often not aware they might be consuming an NPS, the statement's authors said.
Coroners Court of Victoria figures showed that the drug class had contributed to the deaths of 47 people in the state in 2021-22, an incidence that had risen rapidly since 2017-18, when there were three such deaths.
The court had investigated various deaths linked to the unintended consumption of NPS, as well as unexpectedly strong substances, and identified the role of NPS as an "emerging trend" in deaths and harms.
In each case it investigated, the Coroners Court had recommended the implementation of drug checking services, the statement said.
According to peak drug research and policy organisation the Penington Institute, Bendigo lost 58 people to unintentional overdose in the period 2017-2021, a number that rose from 34 in 2012-2016.
The figure means on average at least 14 people a year, or one a month, died as a result of overdose in the city over four years.
In its 2023 overdose report, the Penington Institute sounded the alarm about "an escalating crisis", demanding "urgent and comprehensive policy reform".
Since 2014 drug overdose deaths in Australia had exceeded the road toll, it said.
In addition to the already rising numbers of overdoses, local drug services are worried about the added impact of high volumes of synthetic drugs - particularly opioids such as Fentanyl, which are in epidemic proportions in the United States - potentially finding their way into Australia - something foreshadowed by the Penington report.
"I think if we look at the US we conclude it will be a matter of time before it comes to Australia and becomes more readily available," Lisa Walklate from BCHS told the Advertiser on International Overdose Awareness Day in August.
The Youth Affairs Council, Victorian Ambulance Union, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Victorian Council of Social Service were among those this week calling for "the new Victorian Government to adopt the unequivocal recommendation of the Coroners Court of Victoria to create a drug checking service for the state".
"Located at events or as a standalone service, drug checking would allow people planning to take drugs to find out what is in them while receiving a health intervention to help them make more informed decisions.
"Warnings would also be shared widely and rapidly with the community," the statement's authors said.
"These life-saving services have been implemented in at least 28 countries, with the ACT currently running a drug checking service and Queensland to launch in 2024."
However, a state government spokesperson said there were no current plans to trial pill testing in Victoria.
The Victorian government has pointed to a doubling of funding for alcohol and other drug services over the past decade to $372.4 million, including for harm reduction activities at music events and programs providing information about emerging drugs.
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