The is the first of five points in our Manifesto Challenge 2017.
Latest national figures from 2015 have seen the highest levels of drug related deaths ever reported in the UK, numbering 3674 in England and Wales, and translating as the highest ever mortality rate from drug misuse, at 43.8 deaths per million. Of these deaths, the majority, 1989, are related to opiates, while deaths due to prescription drugs, notably benzodiazepines and antidepressants have also seen a rise in recent years. This follows a steep and consistent rise in deaths since 2012, with heroin and morphine related deaths more than doubling during this period.
Last year both Public Health England and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs published recommendations for curbing the number of drug related deaths. First and foremost among the recommendations from both bodies was insistence that funding for drug treatment services must be maintained, and that further cuts to these services would inevitably lead to an increase in deaths. Continuation of sufficient opioid substitution therapy was another key recommendation of both reports.
The ACMD also recommended widening access to heroin assisted treatment, and that this should be funded centrally by government, and that areas high in injecting drug use should consider adopting drug consumption rooms. Evidence for the efficacy of both interventions in reducing drug related deaths and their cost effectiveness has bee demonstrated repeatedly. Despite these recommendations, the Government has rejected both initiatives to date.
A primary driver of rising drug deaths has been the worsening health of the UK’s ageing heroin using population. Cuts in wider funding support for the the health and welfare of this largely invisible population has also been a key contributor, particularly as provision of support has moved from central to local authority responsibility.
Worryingly, 2017 has seen the emergence of fentanyl as an adulterant in UK heroin, and its presence has already been linked to a number of deaths. If, as it is feared, fentanyl and other synthetic opioid derivatives continue to spread in the UK heroin market, this has the potential to greatly accelerate the rate of drug death if decisive action to mitigate deaths from fentanyl overdoses is not taken. Besides the above initiatives, provision of naloxone and training in its use should be increased among drug users, drug support worker, and other who may come into contact with opioid users, while more radical solutions such as making fentanyl testing strips available should also be considered.
Drug related deaths have overtaken traffic fatalities for the first time ever, while new and unprecedented crises threaten to push death rates still higher. All political parties should have an effective answer for how they plan to turn this figure around, reduce drug related deaths, and provide support for vulnerable and ageing drug using populations, so that they may lead fulfilling lives within UK society.
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