Opiates are driving drug-related deaths to record levels in England and Wales

Opiates are driving drug-related deaths to record levels in England and Wales

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Drug-related deaths have reached record levels across England and Wales as more people die after using opiates and cocaine, official figures show.

In 2021, 4,859 people died from drug poisoning, equivalent to 84.4 deaths per million people, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

This is 6.2% higher than the rate for 2020, the ninth consecutive annual increase and the highest figure since records began in 1993.

Figures include drug addiction, fatal accidents, suicides, and complications related to controlled and uncontrolled drugs, and prescription and over-the-counter drugs.


Almost two-thirds of drug poisoning deaths (3,060) in 2021 were related to substance abuse, equivalent to 53.2 deaths per million people.

Men accounted for more than two-thirds of poisoning deaths (3,275), a gender disparity consistent with previous years.

Those born in the 1970s had a higher rate of substance abuse deaths, with the highest rate being found in people between the ages of 45 and 49.

The ONS said the overall rising trend over the past decade was mainly driven by opiate-related deaths, but also deaths involving other substances such as cocaine.

More than 45% of all drug poisoning deaths (2,219) were due to an opiate, but the steepest increase was related to cocaine use. In 2011 there were 112 cocaine-related deaths, while 2021 recorded 840 deaths, a seven-fold increase.

Across England and Wales, the North East continues to have the highest death rates for drug poisoning and abuse, while London and East England each had the lowest rates for drug poisoning and abuse.

About half of the deaths registered in 2021 will have occurred due to registration delays in the previous year.

The figures show that the death rate from drug poisoning has increased by 81.1% since 2012, when there were 46.6 deaths per million people.


Charities attributed the spike in drug deaths to the legacy of austerity measures and how vulnerable communities have been affected by the pandemic.

Mark Moody, the chief executive of Change Grow Live, said every drug-related death is a tragedy. He added: “The only sensible response to today’s statistics is to redouble our efforts to prevent more people from dying to drugs.

“The government’s new drugs strategy is a unique opportunity to change things for the better, and Change Grow Live will work with partners, policymakers and the people who use our services to ensure that happens.”

David Bremner, the medical director for substance abuse at the charity Turning Point, said the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups is reflected in the numbers.

He added: “The pandemic has exacerbated an existing public health crisis; However, we recognize that drug deaths are preventable.

“At a time of political uncertainty, these new statistics make a loud and clear call, regardless of your political allegiance. The government’s 10-year drug strategy, announced late last year, and additional funding for services are helping to turn the tide, but there is still a long way to go.

“We need sustained and coordinated action across health sectors, including mental health, housing and social care services, to reduce the harm caused by drugs to individuals, families and communities. The government must continue to invest in these life-saving services.”

David Fothergill, chair of the Local Government Association Welfare Committee, said supporting and expanding the supply of the drug naloxone is critical to preventing future drug-related deaths.

“We must support and expand the provision of naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose, and provide overdose education for drug service users, drug users not in treatment, family and friends, dormitories and others “, he said.

Niamh Eastwood, chief executive of the charity Release, said every drug-related death could be prevented if the UK enacted drug policy reform that included decriminalizing drug possession.

Eastwood added: “The decriminalization of drug possession – which would end criminal penalties for drug possession – must be at the core of any policy aimed at protecting the health and well-being of people who use drugs, young people, who experiment, to those who use drugs to cope with trauma and mental health problems.”

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