The highest number of drug-related deaths have been recorded in 2019, since records began in 1993, according to the latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) data. 

ONS data revealed that there have been 4,393 drug related deaths in England and Wales. A 50% increase since 2010, accounting for 1% of all registered deaths in 2019.

The number of drug related deaths continue to rise year on year, as the government continues to ignore recommendations set by The Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2016. Drug related deaths are not inevitable and can be prevented. Yet, governmental inaction continues to contribute to the rise in deaths. Drug policy reform will reduce these deaths. 

What the ONS data shows is that a zero tolerance to drugs doesn’t work and harm reduction is necessary. A punitive model to a health issue does not save lives. Instead, it continues to stigmatise vulnerable people by socially excluding them. Our current drug laws act as a barrier to recovery and management.

These statistics have been released at a time of national crisis with unemployment and poverty continuing to rapidly increase. It is crucial that the government acts now because deaths are likely to increase due to lockdown with unemployment, social and economic insecurity.

Covid-19 has exposed structural health inequalities which contribute to higher death rates amongst vulnerable and deprived populations. The exact same phenomenon is occurring with drug-related deaths. It comes as no surprise that areas of deprivation have the highest levels of drug-related deaths.

Undoubtedly, the impact of austerity measures over the past decade which saw detrimental cuts to vital social and health services, has contributed to this rise in death in some of the most socially deprived parts of the country. In the North East of England the rate of drug related deaths was 94 per million, which is 5.5 more than in the least socially deprived areas of the country, in South East. This comes as no surprise as the North Eastern Town Middlesbrough was listed as the 5th most deprived local authority in 2019, and ranks highly across all other indicators of deprivation. 

How does the type of drug use contribute to drug-related deaths?

Two thirds of the deaths in 2019 were due to drug misuse. Addiction and problematic drug use is often a result of abuse, deprivation and mental health problems. Covid-19 will undoubtedly have an impact on this. Statistics from the US and Canada already suggest there has been a significant increase in drug deaths in 2020, as a result of Covid-19. We must act now.

There are several ways deaths due to drug misuse can be tackled. For instance, making safe drug consumption facilities available and decriminalising possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use.

However, drug deaths aren’t always a result of problematic drug use. One third of drug deaths in 2019 were not a result of misuse. The death of four students at the start of October highlights that progressive drug policy cannot only focus on problematic drug use among deprived populations. The government must also take a harm reduction approach to recreational drug use too.

Universities must address drug use with a welfare oriented approach. By teaching and providing students with resources to make more informed decisions around recreational drug use. Zero tolerance only promotes fear and stigma which may discourage students from calling emergency services when necessary.

Lockdown restrictions mean people might be more likely to use the dark web to procure drugs. Drugs on the dark web tend to be higher purity, therefore more risk of overdose without knowledge of safe doses. Additionally, drug use is moving out of regulated venues and into houses and student halls. This brings new challenges to drug use, making harm reduction and drug education more important than ever.

A new initiative by the Thames Valley police has come into place called the Youth Drug Diversion Scheme. This progressive programme will see young people caught in the possession of a small quantity of drugs diverted from the criminal justice system and entered into a drugs education or treatment programme. Pilot studies show promising results. Though this initiative is a step in the right direction, it is important to note that the programme only allows a person to be diverted from the criminal justice system. Similar initiatives must address not only recreational use but also drug misuse to provide support for individuals struggling with addiction.

The worrying, continuous and record-breaking rise of drug-related deaths indicates that our current drug policy is failing us. We must act now to stop the tragic and preventable loss of life.

This article was co-authored by Volteface staffers Ella Walsh & Katya Kowalski.

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