Opiates lead to record drug deaths in England and Wales

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Drug-related deaths have reached a record high in England and Wales as increasing numbers of people die from the use of opiates and cocaine, official figures show.

In 2021, 4,859 people were recorded as dead from drug intoxication, equivalent to 84.4 deaths per million people, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported.

That’s 6.2% higher than the 2020 rate, the ninth consecutive annual increase and the highest number since records began in 1993.

The numbers cover drug addiction, fatal accidents, suicides and complications involving controlled and uncontrolled drugs, as well as prescription and over-the-counter drugs.


Nearly two-thirds of drug poisoning deaths (3,060) in 2021 were related to drug misuse, accounting for 53.2 deaths per million people.

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

Those born in the 1970s had a higher rate of deaths from drug misuse, with the highest rate found in people aged between 45 and 49.

The ONS said the overall upward trend over the past decade was driven primarily by deaths involving opiates, but also by other substances such as cocaine.

More than 45% of all drug poisoning deaths (2,219) involved an opiate, but the sharpest increase was related to cocaine use. In 2011, there were 112 deaths involving cocaine, while in 2021, there were 840 deaths, a sevenfold increase.

Across England and Wales, the North East continues to have the highest death rates from poisoning and drug misuse, while London and the East of England have the lowest rates of poisoning and drug misuse, respectively.

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

Figures show that the rate of drug poisoning deaths has increased by 81.1% since 2012, when there were 46.6 deaths per million people.


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

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

“The government’s new drug strategy is a once-in-a-generation 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, medical director for substance abuse at charity Turning Point, said the effect of the pandemic on vulnerable groups was reflected in the numbers.

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

“In a time of political uncertainty, these new statistics provide loud and clear appeal, whatever your political loyalties. The government’s 10-year drug strategy announced late last year and the additional funding coming to services is helping to turn the tide, but there is a way to go.

“We need sustained and coordinated action across health, including mental health, housing and social care services, in order 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, who chairs the Local Government Association’s community welfare council, said supporting and expanding the supply of the drug naloxone would be crucial in preventing future drug-related deaths.

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

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the charity Release, said all drug-related deaths could be prevented if the UK implemented drug policy reform, which includes decriminalizing drug possession.

Eastwood added: “The decriminalization of drug possession – which would do away with criminal sanctions for drug possession – should be central to any policy that seeks to protect the health and well-being of people who use drugs, from young people who are even experimenting with the ones they use. drugs to deal with trauma and mental health problems”.

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