A Day For Those Who Died by OD

By Jennifer Matesa 08/31/11

As overdoses across the world soar, thousands of people rally to remember the victims, while trying to prevent more deaths.

World OD Day spurs worldwide vigils. Photo via

Today is the eleventh annual "International Overdose Awareness Day," an event intended to counter the stigma surrounding addiction and to draw attention to the growing thousands of drug overdoses across the world. Here in America, more than 28,000 die each year of overdoses from heroin, cocaine, prescription drugs and a wide variety of other narcotics—more than are killed by guns, murders or HIV/AIDS. In New Jersey, for example, overdose tops the list of causes of accidental deaths, one of many parts of the US where more people are killed by ODs than by car crashes. Central Ohio is another area especially hard-hit by drug-related fatalities; according to the Centers for Disease Control, ODs there have more than quadrupled over the past decade. The most common fatal drugs are opioids, with oxycodone—the active ingredient in the painkiller Oxycontin—leading the way for prescription drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that in the four years between 2004 and 2008, ER visits for non-medical use of the much-abused painkiller, often described as "hillbilly heroin," jumped 152% nationwide. Equally lethal is actual heroin, which is now so strong and cheap, especially in Appalachia and the Ohio Valley, that it’s becoming known as “hillbilly Oxycontin,” as one Pennsylvania rehab doctor told The Fix.

Overdose Awareness Day was started to persuade governments to pursue progressive policies to avert thousands of preventable deaths. Their plan seems to be slowly working. Last month, New York became the fourth state in the country to pass legislation that allows citizens to call 911 without fear of prosecution if they witness someone falling victim to a drug overdose. The state's newly approved legislation, backed by newly-elected Governor Andrew Cuomo and Albany's Democratic leaders, has been billed as a "Good Samaritan 911" law. Its sponsors hope that friends of people overdosing will no longer be too frightened to call the police.

While OD awareness day was started by just a handful of activists, this year many well-established health, advocacy and governmental organizations have teamed up to support the effort, for example the Drug Policy Alliance, which works to promote drug policy “grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights”—while calling on states to pass laws that allow the unimpeded distribution of the opioid antagonist naloxone to prevent deaths from opioid overdose. Events to mark the day include a “die-in” in Los Angeles; a capitol march in Sacramento; a survivors’ photography show in Denver; educational sessions in Philadelphia, Hartford, and Durham, NC; a Bronx awards ceremony for policymakers who supported New York’s Good Samaritan 911 law; and dozens of  candlelight vigils across the nation commemorating the lives of people lost to the disease. Radio stations are being asked to play music by the many artists who have died from overdoses, and a number of international events commemorating the human toll of drug abuse are also planned in cities including Melbourne, Victoria, London and Rome.

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.