Fatal and Non-Fatal Overdose among Opiate Users in South Wales: A Qualitative Study of Peer Responses

Katharine Holloway, Rhian Hills, Tom May

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Background: Overdose is a major cause of death among injecting drug users in Wales. Few studies, however, have explored the overdose responses of witnesses in this context. This study applies Rhodes’ concept of the ‘risk environment’ to examine how witnesses respond to opiate overdose.

Method: In depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with fifty-five participants recruited from statutory and third sector drug treatment providers operating across South Wales and from two Welsh prisons. Eligibility was based on whether the person was, or had recently been, an opiate user and whether they had personally experienced or witnessed an overdose event.

Results: Witnesses were amenable to assisting overdosed peers. However, a number of micro- and macro-level factors impeded the successful implementation of harm reduction techniques in response to an overdose. At micro level, the social setting of injecting drug use, peer group drug use norms and difficulties in identifying an overdose were linked to ineffective response. Macro-level factors including laws governing the possession of drugs and harm reduction discourse were also found to limit the uptake of overdose response techniques.

Conclusion: Findings suggest a need to insert pragmatic solutions into overdose prevention programmes and training to counter the factors hindering effective responses to overdose. This includes simpler techniques and harnessing the support and knowledge of injecting drug users’ social networks. Although these will go some way to addressing specific micro-level barriers, we also emphasise the need for additional policy measures that can address the macro-environmental conditions that produce and maintain features of injecting drug users’ risk environments.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)56-63
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Issue numberJune 2018
Early online date29 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018


  • Overdose
  • Risk environment
  • Wales
  • Heroin
  • drug-related death


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