Globally, as many as 250,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2011 (it is hard to know for sure, as reporting is so poor). Occasionally, these tragic stories make the headlines: River Phoenix, Cory Monteith, Janis Joplin... the great majority do not.
Yet each life lost represents another failure of the war on drugs, another life that could have been saved.
August 31st is International Overdose Day, an occasion to remember those who we have lost, and to raise awareness of the issue. Originating in Australia, the day will be marked this year by events around the world: places such as Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, England, Malaysia, Scotland, Slovakia, and the US will be holding memorial services, candle light vigils, seminars and speeches, public events and ceremonies, walks, trainings and film screenings.
We know that the war on drugs - which reinforces a repressive approach to reducing drug use through criminal sanctions, punishment and stigma - continues to cause a wide range of harms: violence, insecurity, mass incarceration and virus transmission to name a few. Yet, in many ways, overdose deaths are one of the most frustrating - as they can so easily be prevented. Naloxone is one of the World Health Organisation's Essential Medicines, and is specifically used to counter the life-threatening effects of an overdose from opiates such as heroin. It has no potential for misuse, is relatively inexpensive, and can save lives - yet remains unavailable to the vast majority of people who use opiates, their friends, families and peers.
The war on drugs has had devastating consequences for people who use drugs. Punitive measures drive vulnerable people away from the proven services and support that can save their lives. Zero-tolerance ideology towards drug use underlies the resistance to making Naloxone widely available.
And despite huge investments and resources, the war on drugs has failed to reduce drug use or supply. We need to support people, rather than punishing them. This weekend, I will be remembering those who we have lost. And I will continue to advocate for the reform of counterproductive and harmful drug policies - such as the criminalisation of people who use drugs - and also for life saving interventions such as naloxone that can prevent more people from dying.