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Number of drug-related deaths rises to highest on record, the UK Government must now declare a public health emergency

The Office for National Statistics data released today shows 4,359 drug poisoning (i.e. ‘overdose’) deaths registered in 2018 in England and Wales, of which over two thirds (2,917) related to ‘drug misuse’. Drug misuse deaths are defined by the ONS as deaths: where the underlying cause is drug abuse or drug dependence; or deaths where the underlying cause is drug poisoning and where any of the substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 are involved.

2018 is now the year with the highest number of registered drug poisoning deaths since records began and, with a 16 per cent increase in drug poisoning deaths since last year, the highest year-on-year increase in deaths. The number of drug misuse deaths is over 3 times the number of such deaths registered when records began in 1993.

Increased overdose deaths have been reported across all the main substances of use, with over half of these deaths involving an opiate (2,208), such as heroin or methadone. Deaths related to MDMA and cocaine are the highest since records began with 92 and 637 fatalities, recorded respectively. MDMA deaths have increased by 84 per cent and cocaine deaths by 158 per cent, since 2014.

Drug-related deaths are not just a Scottish problem. The rate of drug misuse deaths was as high as 51 per million in the population across England and Wales. The North East has significantly higher rates of drug misuse deaths, with 96 per million such deaths registered in 2018, which has more than doubled since 2008. Old seaside towns, which have been impacted hugely by austerity policies and cuts to drug services, have also continued to see high rates of drug misuse deaths.

Once again, Blackpool had the highest rate of drug misuse deaths in England and Wales, with 177 deaths per million in the population. Blackpool is also the most deprived local authority area in England.

Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release told Talking Drugs:

“People are dying and government inaction is contributing to these deaths. For the last 7 years we have seen drug-related deaths increase year on year and every year we have called on the Government to take action, to scale up funding for drug treatment, to support overdose prevention sites, to fund drug checking facilities, and to expand heroin assisted treatment. Each year they have ignored us, continuing to do the same whilst people die – if the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister continue to ignore these calls then they will continue to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of people every year.”

Overdose prevention sites operate in several countries across the world, with some operating for over 40 years. These sites are also called drug consumption rooms or safer injecting facilities. Such facilities allow people to consume drugs in a safer environment under medical supervision. It also provides an opportunity to reduce public consumption of drugs, thereby reducing drug-related litter. The evidence from these harm reduction initiatives demonstrates that they have the capacity to reduce and reverse overdoses, improve public safety, improve the health of people who use drugs and reduce risky injecting behaviour.

Eastwood commented that: “Beyond the need for funding in the treatment system and the scaling up of harm reduction responses, we cannot ignore the impact that austerity measures have had on people in some of the most deprived areas of the country. The removal of proper social safety nets as we have witnessed with benefit cuts and the introduction of universal credit are also significant contributors to these appalling statistics. These statistics are people’s lives. Each person is someone’s child, someone’s parent, someone’s sibling.”

The Government must urgently act to end the criminalisation of people who use drugs by decriminalising drug possession offences and declaring a public health emergency in recognition of the huge scale of preventable deaths. Portugal ended criminal sanctions for drug possession in 2001, its drug-related death rate is 4 per million of the population. The Czech Republic decriminalised possession of all drugs in 2010, it also has a drug-related death rate of 4 per million. Compare these figures to the UK: 74 per million of the population has died as a result of government failures.

These deaths are avoidable but this public health crisis will not abate unless we scale up harm reduction initiatives and pursue policies based on evidence rather than ideology and moralism.

The Government’s own advisory body – the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – gave advice 3 years ago now on how to prevent more of these deaths: increase funding for treatment and services and improve access to harm reduction for people who use opioids. It is tragic and hugely irresponsible that this expert advice has been largely ignored by central government.

Successful drug policy should focus on reducing harms for all drugs. The UK’s current drug policy conversations must extend beyond cannabis – or maintain its complicity in the deaths of thousands of people whose lives deserve saving. 

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