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Canberra drug deaths from heroin reach highest level in five years

While the nation is focused on the scourge of ice, accidental drug deaths from opioids are at the highest they have been in five years in the ACT.

The number of opioid-related deaths in 2013 and 2014 in Canberra was almost twice the number of people who died in motor vehicle crashes over the same period, an independent evaluation into the ACT Naloxone trial has found.

Opioids are defined as medications that relieve pain and include prescription drugs such as oxycodone and morphine, and illicit drugs such as heroin.

More than half of the 32 deaths recorded in the ACT in the two-year period involved the use of heroin.

The evaluation was produced for ACT Health by the Burnett Institute, Curtin University and the National Drug Research Initiative among others.

It stated Australia's first take-home Naloxone program, initiated in 2012 in the ACT, resulted in 57 overdose reversals using the drug and recommended the program continue.


Naloxone is a schedule 4 drug routinely used by health professionals to reverse opioid overdoses. The evaluation found Naloxone could be safely distributed to and successfully used by people other than health professionals to reverse opioid overdose.

For Peter Taylor's son Sam, who died four years ago from a heroin overdose in Sydney, the program could have saved his life. He described his son as "very funny, a great acrobat and a great piano player".

"You ask yourself what you did wrong as a parent," Mr Taylor said.

"But he was a fine lad, he was very caring."

Mr Taylor is part of the Family and Friends for Drug Law Reform group, which he joined after the death of his son.

"The crazy thing about bloody heroin is, if you get the antidote for it quickly, it's fine," Mr Taylor said.

"You don't die from the right amounts of it or if you have a facility there for administering the antidote."

Marion and Brian McConnell agreed. They said drug regulation could have prevented their son's death in 1992.

The McConnells helped set up the drug law reform group in 1995 in Canberra and have been fighting for 20 years to save young lives.

While ice is in the national spotlight, Mrs McConnell said heroin still killed more people.

Australia-wide statistics reveal accidental drug deaths involving methamphetamine were at 88 in 2010, whereas accidental deaths involving opioids were at 849 deaths in the same year. Heroin was the most frequently identified opioid.

"These people have families, they have people who care about them," Mrs McConnell said.

While the McConnells believe they've contributed to small changes, other changes they have fought for have fallen flat.

The implementation of prescription heroin was not allowed even after being approved by a majority of medical experts in Australia. A medically-supervised injection room in the nation's capital was also knocked back.

While they think the Naloxone program is a "step in the right direction", Mr McConnell said it does not stop the availability of the drugs.

"They need health and social support. If they end up in jail, they're no better off," he said.

"Families might not want their children to use drugs and they might do everything they can to stop them but not everyone can stop their children from using drugs, and if they can't do that, well then they want them to survive the experience," he said.

Every year, Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform hold a Remembrance Ceremony to help families come to terms with their loss. This year is the 20th anniversary of the group.

The ceremony will be held on Monday, October 26, at 12.30pm at Weston Park. To register the name of a loved one who has died from an overdose, email

Marion and Brian McConnell's son was 24 when he died from a heroin overdose in 1992. For the past 20 years, his parents have been fighting for drug law reform.

"We certainly didn't know he was using heroin. The first we found out about it was an incident that happened on an oval not far from where we lived. His friend knocked on our door and told us our son was in trouble, and we went to see him. We went to the oval and he was unconscious."

The McConnell's daughter called an ambulance which was closely followed by police.

"They hassled me, questioned me like a criminal," Mrs McConnell said.

She said the police weren't concerned with the welfare of her son, they wanted to find out who had supplied him with the drugs. Her son discharged himself from the hospital for fear of the repercussions from drug dealers if he told the police. The next day, he took himself on a holiday so he wouldn't have to talk to the police.

"On that holiday he was alone, there was no one to call the ambulance and he used heroin again and he died," Mrs McConnell said.

"We don't blame the police, they were doing the job the law told them to do. We tried not to put blame on anyone, but we realised things could be changed to make it a lot better."

The McConnells believe their story helped change the law, to stop the police following the ambulance to cases of overdose.

Kerel Pearce lost her brother, Patrick, to a heroin overdose when he was just 28 years old.

Kerel Pearce lost her brother, Patrick, to a heroin overdose when he was just 28 years old. Photo: Jay Cronan

Kerel Pearce lost her older brother Patrick to a heroin overdose in August 1996, when he was 28 years old. He died alone with a needle in his arm at the home of a friend.

"He had come home, made himself a cup of tea and some toast and put his washing in the machine. When his friend came home, he was unconscious. She called the ambulance; she called three times and kept hanging up because she was fearful that she would get into trouble. She hid the heroin and everything, so when the police came it was all gone."

Ms Pearce said by the time the ambulance arrived, with the police hot on their heels, her brother was brain dead. Four days later, the family turned off his life support.

"He was dearly loved. His funeral was humongous. People were in shock, saying they couldn't believe Patrick was on drugs."

Ms Pearce's parents, Ann and Michael Gardiner, found Family and Friends for Drug Law Reform a "breath of fresh air" after the family was subject to the stigma of having their son die from a drug overdose.

Ms Pearce said the group provided a place where their loved one was worthwhile.

"This person wasn't one to be ashamed of, we could all share the grief together and talk about that person. It opened up our eyes to that this is a health problem, not a criminal problem. Having these punitive laws where they just put everyone in jail, you're just exacerbating the problem."

Peter Taylor, whose son Sam died of a heroin overdose in 2011.

Peter Taylor, whose son Sam died of a heroin overdose in 2011. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Peter Taylor said after years of trying to get clean, his 28-year-old son Sam fatally overdosed on heroin four years ago.

"September is just an awful month for me. It should be nice, because summer is coming but all I think about is my son dying," Mr Taylor said.

"To an extent, his death caught me unawares a bit. He seemed to have made a lot of progress and seemed to have got a lot better."

Mr Taylor said Sam had suffered depression and anxiety since his early teens. The drugs the doctor gave him to treat his mental health problems turned him into a "zombie".

"I suspect heroin was still the one thing that gave him some peace of mind, because none of the prescription drugs seemed to have much effect," Mr Taylor said.

He said as much as his son didn't want to be addicted to drugs, the underlying problems were not being addressed.

Mr Taylor believed legalising heroin and having it as a prescription medicine would have prevented his son's death.

"Prohibition would be nice, but it doesn't work. It can't be enforced, it costs a shitload of money, but for what?

"We spend all this money … to stop people killing themselves, we should be saving a hell of a lot of people. But they're still dying from drugs. We need to be protecting them.

"There are still poor people like me suffering; there are still people like Sam dying."