Stats for the last decade show that rates of drug-related poisonings have dramatically increased, being 60% higher in 2020 than they were in 2010. Rates have also slightly increased over the pandemic despite lockdown restrictions, being 3.8% higher than the 2019 figures.

ONS researchers suggested that a few of the reasons behind the rise in drug-related deaths over the last decade may be the long-term effects of persistent drug use, new trends in specific drug use (notably in cocaine use) and patient disengagement in opiate substitute therapy.

The demographics of the ONS figures

In 2020, of the 4,561 deaths related to drug-related poisoning, two-thirds were related to drug misuse. Deaths classified as drug misuse are attributed if the cause of death is due to drug abuse or dependence or if the substance is illegal, while drug poisoning deaths more expansively include controlled and non-controlled substances, such as over the counter and prescription medications.

Those born in the 1970s, often referred to as Generation X, continue to be the primary age demographic at risk of deaths related to drug misuse, especially for those aged 45 to 49 years old. While in terms of gender, drug poisoning related deaths predominately impact men, who make up nearly 70% of deaths compared to women.

The ONS figures also show that in 2020 almost half of all drug poisoning deaths involved an opiate. However, concerningly over the last decade, there has been a five-fold increase in deaths relating to cocaine, overwhelmingly affecting men.

Data from the ONS showed that the North East continues to have the highest rate of drug misuse, as it has had for the past eight years, and has a significantly higher rate than all other regions in England. In contrast, Wales recorded the lowest rate of drug misuse deaths since 2014, a turnaround from 2010 when the rate of drug misuse deaths was higher than any region in England.

Is a new era of treatment and recovery in England possible?

In July, Dame Carol Black published part two of her independent review of drugs in England. The report argued that the current treatment and recovery system cannot operate to the standard needed to address the current on the ground challenges.

The report describes practical shortcomings spanning many government departments, local government, and other organisations. The publication said that national funding for treatment and specialist services have declined substantially over the last decade; therefore, hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment is urgently needed to increase treatment capacity and the number of professionally qualified workers.

Another key factor that the review recognised was personal histories of trauma and the role mental ill-health often plays at the heart of drug and alcohol dependences.

Currently, people in drug rehabilitation services are often excluded from mental health services until they resolve their drug problem and are conversely excluded from drug services until their mental health problems are addressed.

Therefore, the review recommended that the Department of Health and Social Care (DoHSC) and the NHS work to solve that paradoxical problem, as well as implementing wider health policies such as treating drug misuse as a health problem rather than a criminal one, and the training of addiction and mental health professionals in co-existing drug and mental health problems, so they can better respond to them when they arise.

Clare Taylor, national director of operations at health and social care organisation, Turning Point, said that Dame Carol’s review in light of the ONS figures underscores the urgency of action required by the Government:

“Drug dependency is often borne of factors over which the individual has no control, such as poverty or trauma. We welcome Dame Carol Black’s recommendations that substance misuse is treated as a health problem rather than a crime with more emphasis on the wider factors which affect the likelihood of recovery such as stable housing and employment.”

“The context of a decade of austerity and cuts to a wide range of public services and the rise in drug-related deaths cannot be seen in isolation… We need to make sure that support is available to anyone with a drug or alcohol problem and services can intervene early… Every drug or alcohol-related death is preventable, and our thoughts are with anyone who has lost someone this way.”

In its initial response to the review, the DoHSC highlighted a previous investment of £148m, earmarked for cutting crime and protecting people from the harm caused by illegal drugs, including an £80m investment in drug treatment services, touted as the largest for 15 years. The Home Office also said that their greater emphasis on drug criminal enforcement, including agitating and disrupting the county line supply trade of illegal substances, would be essential in declining overall substance misuse.

The Government has further committed to building upon their £148m funding package, and to publishing later this year a new drug strategy informed by Dame Carol’s review.

If you are concerned about your own, or a loved one’s, alcohol use, you can contact Drinkline’s free helplines on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am – 8pm, weekends 11am – 4pm). Or you can contact Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for free on 0800 9177 650, to get help with the regular local support groups.

If you need help and advice about your own, or a loved one’s, substance misuse you can call Talk to Frank on 0300 123 6600, and you can find details of local and national services that can provide treatment on their website.