Drug-related Deaths in England & Wales Reach Highest Figure on Record

Source: Release

Newly published data reveals that the rate of drug-related deaths in England and Wales has, once again, reached a new high.

According to a report published on August 6 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were 3,756 drug-related deaths registered in England and Wales in 2017. The rate of drug-related deaths has soared since the Conservative Party came to power in 2010, with a 30 per cent increase in heroin/morphine deaths during this period, and a staggering 200 per cent increase in cocaine-related deaths. The overall rate increased by 37 per cent during this period.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release - the UK’s centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws – blamed the government for “driving this devastating public health crisis by punishing people for their drug use instead of implementing compassionate, evidence-based policies”.

“This is a national crisis, and it requires a coordinated, national public health response. Instead we are seeing a disconnected, localised approach that fails to protect vulnerable people, and an overarching national strategy that primarily harms people who already marginalised. The government has also slashed funding to essential treatment services, leaving thousands of people left at the mercy of a postcode lottery as to whether their local authorities will provide the support that they need.”

In a press release, Eastwood also noted that the government has consistently opposed the introduction of drug consumption rooms (DCRs) – medical facilities which provide sterile drug use equipment in safes space overseen by health professionals. DCRs currently operate successfully in ten countries, and no one has ever died from an overdose of one. They also provide a plethora of benefits for people who don’t use drugs in the local community, TalkingDrugs has reported, including a reduced strain on emergency services and safer streets.

Despite the high rate of drug-related deaths, the UK government seems set to continue its approach; pursuing a goal of society-wide abstinence from drug use, rather than the provision of harm reduction measures that reduce drug deaths.

In November 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May insisted that "it is right that we continue to fight the war against drugs," citing “the incredible damage [drugs] can do to families and the individuals concerned”. This is despite the government's own research indicating that drug law enforcement has “little impact on availability", and that there is “[no] obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country”.

The ongoing criminalisation of people for personal drug use and possession, Eastwood says, is “dissuading people who want help from seeking it [which in turn] is fuelling drug-related deaths”. Conversely, Portugal, which decriminalised personal drug possession in 2001, has a drug-related deaths rate which is 17 times lower than that of England and Wales.

Of the 136,352 recorded drug offences that took place between April 2016 and March 2017 in England and Wales, 83 per cent were for drug possession.

Internationally, there are many instances of successful drug policy reform reducing drug deaths that the UK government could learn from. Nonetheless, for now, Theresa May’s government seems unlikely to change.