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Tony Duffin Each fatal drug overdose is a preventable death

Tony Duffin, CEO of Ana Liffey Drug Project, reflects on a fatal overdose and the need to do more to prevent such deaths.

OVERDOSES CONTINUE TO rise. Fatal overdoses continue to be a major health concern in Ireland. The most recent national statistics, from 2020, reveal a rise in poisonings — highlighting the increasing use of cocaine, and the risks associated with combining different drugs.

2023 saw the emergence of Nitazenes, potent synthetic opioids, on the illicit drugs market in Ireland — with significant clusters of related overdoses in Dublin and Cork towards the end of the year. It is not yet known how many of these overdoses were fatal as toxicology reports are needed.

Behind the numbers of recorded fatal overdoses are people, people who are loved and missed. This is not always apparent in the reporting by traditional media or the discussion on social media platforms. It is with this in mind that I share the following…

A fatal overdose many years ago

Almost twenty years ago on an overcast Thursday morning in early March, I was asked by my colleague to enter a room with them in a residential project we ran in Dublin city for people experiencing homelessness.

The night before, a young woman returned to the project. They were in good humour having had an enjoyable evening. They were keen to say goodnight and go to the privacy of their own room. There was no reason to think that this night was any different from any other.

The sun rose and the project stirred into life with residents heading off about their respective business — off to a Community Employment scheme, a stabilisation programme, a counselling session or what have you. The young woman, who was a little late in the night before, hadn’t been seen that morning. The staff on duty went and knocked. There was no answer. The young woman hadn’t signed out of the building, or perhaps she had left and forgotten to sign out? No one had seen her leave. With still no answer from the room and no reason to believe the young woman had already left that morning, there was growing concern.

My colleague called me, we went to the room where they unlocked the door and we entered calling out the young woman’s name.

The scene before us was something I will never forget. It was hard to look. There on the bed was the young woman, her right arm was outstretched and a needle and syringe were protruding from her vein. She had been dead for some hours. The scene was like something you’d see in a movie, seeming unreal because you didn’t want it to be real. There was a small handbag in the room.

I had last met the young woman the Thursday or Friday before and she was heading out for the evening. She had been to Penneys and she was decked out in her new clothes with a new handbag to finish off her outfit. I remember the handbag vividly as it was the same small black and white handbag with a picture of a kitten on it that my then two-year-old daughter had. Seeing this happy young woman in her early twenties, excited about heading out for the evening, with the same handbag as my daughter had struck me then; and struck me again seeing it in her room where she lay dead a week later. Two very different occasions, one of happiness and one of loss.

I think of her from time to time. I think of what her life could have possibly been. I think of those who love and miss her.

Beyond the Citizens’ Assembly

In October 2023, the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use published its recommendations. The work of the Citizens’ Assembly and their 36 recommendations highlight, once more, that drug policy is complex and there is much to consider.

A full report from the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use will soon be published for all to read. It will be discussed in the Oireachtas by a Joint Committee of the Dáil and Seanad.

The Government will then consider the findings of the Joint Committee before deciding on drug policy measures for the years to come. These will be important deliberations and decisions.

Government must implement policies that will bring the number of fatal overdoses down and avoid the loss, hurt and heartache that each of these preventable deaths brings – like that of the young woman all those years ago.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge all the dedicated people currently working day-in-and-day-out to prevent fatal overdoses in Ireland, including people who use drugs themselves. Without their efforts, the situation in Ireland would be far worse.


Tony Duffin is the CEO of Ana Liffey Drug Project, an Irish NGO. First established in 1982, Ana Liffey Drug Project offers services to people who use drugs in the Dublin and the Midwest Region of the country. The recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs can be found here.

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