The Government must follow the evidence if they are to save lives, says Release

Injecting Equipment. Source: Nigel Brunsdon

Release has responded to the latest drug-related deaths figures announced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The data released by the ONS shows 4,561 drug poisoning (i.e. ‘overdose’) deaths registered in 2020 in England and Wales, of which two thirds were related to ‘drug misuse’. The rate of death relating to drug misuse in England and Wales in 2020 was 52.3 deaths per million people. 2020 is now the year with the highest number of registered drug poisoning deaths since records began, with the rates of drug-related poisonings now 60.9% higher than they were 10 years ago in 2010.

Release’s policy lead, Dr. Laura Garius, said:

“With drug poisoning deaths increasing once again in England and Wales, it is time to acknowledge the role that current drug policy, and government inaction are playing in these deaths. We will no doubt see these rates continue to rise if we do not adopt policy reform and invest in overdose prevention sites and harm reduction and treatment, and review the law to end criminal sanctions for possession offences.”

It continues to be deaths related to opiates that are driving the figures, with a total of 2,263 drug poisoning deaths registered in 2020 involving opiates (such as heroin and morphine). This is 4.8% higher than in 2019 (2,160 deaths) and 48.2% higher than in 2010 (1,527 deaths). There has also been a five-fold increase in cocaine-related deaths since 2010 – with 777 drug poisoning deaths registered in 2020 involving cocaine, compared with 144 such deaths registered in 2010.

There are also increasing numbers of deaths involving benzodiazepines (with 476 deaths registered in 2020 compared to 399 in 2019 – an increase of 19.3%), and gabapentinoids, including a 41% increase in deaths involving pregabalin (244 deaths in 2019 to 344 deaths in 2020), and a 32.6% increase in deaths involving gabapentin (89 deaths in 2019 to 118 deaths in 2020). These drugs are often taken alongside heroin/morphine to enhance the effect, but may increase the risk of overdose.

There continues to be a distinct North/South divide in rates of drug misuse deaths. The North East in particular has a significantly higher rate of deaths relating to drug misuse than all other English regions, with 104.6 deaths per million people, the highest rate of drug misuse of any English region for the past eight consecutive years.

In 2020, Wales recorded its lowest rate of drug misuse deaths since 2014, however the ONS report includes that death registration delays in Wales could have impacted the latest figures.

Release’s executive director, Niamh Eastwood, added:

“The public health crisis that we are all experiencing as a result of COVID-19 has exposed how structural inequalities have contributed to high deaths rates due to the virus; we have seen the same thing in drug-related deaths for the last decade. It is no surprise that in areas of deprivation, where austerity has destroyed social safety nets, we are witnessing the highest levels of drug-related deaths linked to drug dependency. Investment in these communities, adequate housing, restoring benefits to a decent level, along with drug policy and harm reduction initiatives can save lives.”

The Government’s own advisory body – the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – gave advice five years ago on how to prevent more of these deaths. Despite ample evidence, it is tragic and hugely irresponsible that this expert advice has been largely ignored by central government.

After 50 years of failure, the Misuse of Drugs Act must be repealed; drug deaths are not inevitable. This public health crisis will not abate unless we scale up harm reduction initiatives and pursue policies based on science and evidence rather than ideology and moralism.

Read the full blog post here.

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