The ‘substantial upward trend’ in drug-related deaths was explored at the latest meeting of the Drugs, Alcohol and Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group, as DDN reports.
The greatest increase in drug-related deaths was seen in the most deprived areas, explained Dr Ben Windsor-Shellard of the Office for National Statistics (ONS), with the North East of England experiencing a significantly higher rate than the rest of the country.
Scotland’s annual increase of 27 per cent gave it the highest drug-related death rate in the EU, while drug-related deaths in Wales had increased by 84 per cent in the last decade. The 16 per cent increase in England and Wales – to a total of 4,359 deaths – represented the highest annual increase since records began.
There were statistics for alcohol-specific deaths too, but the ONS considered these to be a ‘conservative estimate of the harms related to alcohol’ as they only included health conditions where the death had been a direct consequence of alcohol misuse, such as alcoholic liver disease. While the overall death rate had remained stable in recent years, the figures showed – just as with the drug-related statistics – a clear impact of deprivation, with the death rate up to four times higher in areas where there was poor housing, unemployment and adverse childhood experiences.
‘The number of lives lost is the highest on record, with the vast majority including opioids,’ said Sunny Dhadley, representing the Naloxone Action Group (NAG). Naloxone was an easy-to-use medication in reversing an overdose, yet it was ‘simply not reaching the people who need it the most’.
While data was very useful, we needed to look at all the strands that currently worked in isolation from each other – inequality, mental health, release from prison – and also align the drug strategy to work closely with commissioning.
Expanding peer-led initiatives could help to tackle stigma, prejudice and racism and he called for more meaningful service user involvement. Changing the situation was ‘not just about funding’ – ‘we need to address pathways and functions across systems,’ he said.
‘I need to add that stigma is rife,’ commented detective chief inspector Jason Kew, heroin and crack action area coordinator for South East England. ‘I call on all of us to be leaders and change that narrative. Stigma kills.’
Lauren Tapp gave insight from her work at Health Poverty Action. She talked about the 60 per cent rise in drug deaths worldwide and urged the group to think about drugs as a global issue.
‘There is an incredible amount of deaths that could have been prevented by access to harm reduction,’ she said. ‘Stigma, lack of access to services and criminalisation make negative experiences for people who use drugs.’
Globally, just as locally, ‘we can’t just think about the war on drugs in terms of drug poisonings – we need to think of it in the wider setting,’ she said. ‘How much money is going into enforcement compared to other drugs initiatives, such as harm reduction and naloxone? There are better places that money could be spent.’
The group’s discussion reflected deep frustration with the lack of political will to change the situation. ‘We had to do something ten years ago. We can’t keep saying that year on year,’ commented Dhadley.
‘We have the ONS figures every year and they go up and up,’ said Alex Boyt. ‘We have the same conversations, the same tragedies. What can we do differently?’
‘This graph [showing drug poisoning deaths] tells you everything that’s wrong with drug policy in this country,’ added Karen Tyrell, executive director at Humankind.
The group resolved to build on its connections with other parliamentary groups to push the agenda forward – beginning with a list of recommendations that members believed were realistic and achievable.
Summary of recommendations
- Invest in treatment, including mandating drug and alcohol misuse services within local authority budgets.
- Provide financial support to local authorities to find individuals for whom traditional OST has failed and offer them heroin-assisted treatment.
- Support the use of medically supervised drug consumption rooms.
- Extend naloxone coverage.
- Expand outreach services.
- Explore policy reform, such as decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use.