The Office for National Statistics has released data that shows deaths attributed to drugs reached a figure of 4,859 in 2021 an increase of 6.2% from the previous year, making it the most deadly year since records began in 1992, with nearly double the number of deaths in 2012 when the current government came to power. 

The total death figure covers deaths by drug dependence, fatal accidents, suicides and complications which are connected to the use of illegal drugs, over-the-counter medicine, and prescription drugs, but do not include alcohol and tobacco products. The figure relates only to deaths that were recorded by the coroner in that year, this accounts for delays in death inquests. 

Males make up nearly two-thirds of all drug-related deaths with 3,275 dying in 2021, and 1,584 females dying in the same year. When looking at deaths which were attributed to a specific drug, more males died than females in every category apart from fentanyl, 30 females and 28 males died in 2021 where fentanyl was involved. 

Deaths involving all opiates have fallen slightly from 2020 when there were 2,263, compared to 2,219 in 2021, this accounts for nearly 50% of all drug-related deaths, and nearly 75% of deaths when an illegal drug was involved. The age group most affected by deaths related to all opiates is the 40-49s, the under 20s suffered the least amount of deaths with 23 in total.

Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) were responsible for 258 deaths in 2021, an increase of 88.3% from 2020,  most of these deaths were caused by accidental overdose.

Charity groups such as Release have been calling on the UK government for years to establish overdose prevention facilities such as those in Germany, Switzerland, Portugal and other countries around the world. They say evidence produced from these sites across the globe shows overdose prevention facilities, “reduce and reverse overdoses, improve public safety, improve the health of people who use drugs problematically and reduce high risk injecting behaviours.”

Release also campaigns for the UK government to decriminalise drug possession offences; Portugal decriminalised all drug possession offences in 2001 and now has a drug-related death rate 14 times lower than that of the UK, and Czechia’s is 16 times lower. 

Deaths were higher in the North East of England than anywhere else, with 15.1 deaths per 100,00 of the population. The North East also suffers the worst rate of poverty in the UK, with 25% of people living in poverty, compared to 19% in the South East, according to the Joeseph Rowntree Foundation. Blackpool has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in the country, with 29.8 deaths per 100,000 of the population from all drugs, and 19.4 for deaths involving illegal drugs. 

Niamh Eastwood, Release’s Executive Director said, “It is an utter disgrace that we are again talking about record-breaking drug deaths. Every single one of these tragedies could have been avoided with the wilful implementation of evidence-led, UK-wide policy reform. Drug deaths are a public health emergency across the UK that can and must be adequately addressed. Government inaction is a political choice.”

“Whilst the Government may be investing in drug treatment, drug deaths will continue to rise without commitment to serious policy reforms, eradicating the harms caused as a result of drug prohibition. The Home Office must allow overdose prevention facilities to be established immediately. We need a safe supply of all controlled drugs, expanding substitute prescribing to other substances beyond opiates. Decriminalisation of drug possession – which would end the criminal sanctions for possession of drugs – must be core to any policy that seeks to protect the health and well-being of people who use drugs, from young people who are experimenting to those who use drugs to cope with trauma and mental health problems.”

ONS data shows a 6.2% rise in drug-related deaths during 2021

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