Legal drugs responsible for most overdoses

Legal drugs such as prescription medication, alcohol, and methadone are responsible for most drug overdoses, according to new figures.

From the Irish Examiner

They also show the number of poisonings is increasing dramatically in the North-east and South ”” with deaths almost doubling in both areas.

Figures from the National Drug-Related Deaths Index show there were 607 fatalities in 2011, compared to 597 in 2010. These compare to 431 in 2004 and a peak of 653 in 2009.

Of the 607 deaths, 365 were poisonings (often referred to as overdoses) and 242 were non-poisonings ”” including medical deaths such as diseases and physical traumas.

Health Research Board senior researcher Dr Suzi Lyons said the figures show a “steep rise” in the number of polydrug deaths (involving more than one substance), increasing from 168 (50% of cases) in 2010 to 215 (59%) in 2011.

Driving this is a “sharp increase” in polydrug deaths involving benzodiazepines (legal tranquillisers), often in conjunction with methadone (the legal substitution drug for heroin) and sedative medication.

Benzodiazepines such as Diazepam and Flurazepam, were involved in two thirds of all overdoses in 2011, with 166 fatalities, compared to 103 in 2010.

Anti-depressants were implicated in 96 deaths in 2011 (66 in 2010), while deaths involving meth- adone almost doubled, from 60 to 113. Dr Lyons said 68% of methadone deaths involved people not in treatment.

She said alcohol was the single most commonly implicated drug. It was linked to 136 deaths in 2011 (40% of all), though the number dropped from 152 in 2010.

In comparison, deaths involving illegal drugs continue to fall. Heroin- related deaths halved, from 115 in 2009 to 60 in 2011; while cocaine deaths dropped from 53 in 2009 to 23 in 2011.

One increase is in relation to ecstasy, with 11 deaths in 2011, from less than five deaths in each of the previous two years.

Dr Lyons said it was “not clear yet” why there was a shift in deaths from illegal to legal drugs, but said that there was an almost identical trend in Scotland, which has a similar drug market to ours.

Consultant psychiatrist Eamon Keenan said that benzodiazepines needed tighter regulation and that the Department of Health was working on this.

He said there was concern that methadone was being diverted onto the street and said plans for national clinical addiction guidelines needed to be “expedited”.

The Health Research Board report shows a sharp rise in overdoses in the North East Regional Drug Task Force area ”” from 23 in 2010 to 41 in 2011; and the Southern Regional Drugs Task Force (Co Cork and Kerry) ”” from 19 to 37. That is in addition to 10 deaths in Cork City Local Drug Task Force.

There were 32 deaths in the South East Regional Drugs Task Force in comparison to 37 in 2010.

Dublin’s North Inner City Local Drugs Task Force was next with 29, in comparison to 21 in 2010.