Renewed calls for pill testing in Victoria as synthetic benzo deaths soar

Renewed calls for pill testing in Victoria as synthetic benzo deaths soar

The post-mortem toxicology report found the man’s blood did not contain the key ingredient in Xanax, but did contain novel benzodiazepines.

A subsequent coronial investigation found the man was one of eight people to die after taking counterfeit Xanax in 2020.

Gebert recommended the Department of Health “urgently” introduce pill testing and referenced data from Scotland where novel benzodiazepines were also being linked to a rising numbers of deaths.

There, 571 people died after ingesting the substances in 2018, making up 48 per cent of all drug-related deaths that year. In 2020, the proportion rose to 66 per cent with 879 deaths.

Gebert is not the first coroner to call for pill testing to be introduced in Victoria.

In April last year, Coroner Paresa Spanos called on the Department of Health to step in following the deaths of five young Melbourne men.

Spanos found a combination of synthetic substances the five men ingested caused them to act bizarrely, with one sustaining “unsurvivable” brain damage while others suffered seizures and cardiac arrests after running into windows and walls between July 2016 and January 2017. Another fell from a 10th floor balcony.

In each case, the men had ingested a cocktail of synthetic drugs, believing they were MDMA or magic mushrooms.

Synthetic drugs in Canberra last year.Credit:Jeffrey Chan

The Department of Health responded to the coroner’s recommendation in July 2021 indicating there was “no active plan for implementation of a drug checking service”.

Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association spokesman David Taylor said it was imperative the public could be informed about hazardous substances and expressed frustration that coronial recommendations calling for pill testing were still being ignored.

Taylor said while it was hard to know what was driving up the use of novel benzodiazepines in Victoria, it was likely the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions had caused a shift to purchasing substances online.

“Sadly, the way alcohol and other drug harms are measured is often through catastrophe and harm, so in many cases, change only occurs after many people have experienced preventable harm,” he said.

In March, The Age revealed the rise in all overdose deaths was exceeding the increase in Victoria’s population.

Data from the Victorian Coroners Prevention Unit found that despite the number of illegal drug overdose deaths growing, pharmaceutical medicines still accounted for most overdoses.

Benzodiazepines were the most frequent contributing pharmaceutical drug group, playing a role in an average 54.3 per cent of overdose deaths annually from 2010 to 2019.

Opioids were linked to 41.6 per cent of fatal overdoses, while antidepressants and antipsychotics were connected to 34.7 and 20.8 deaths respectively.

A Department of Health spokesman said it was considering the latest coronial findings and continuing to examine new ways of monitoring different drugs circulating in the community.

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