Drug-related deaths in England and Wales hit highest level in 2020

Drug-related deaths in England and Wales hit highest level in 2020 since records began nearly 30 years ago – as number of fatalities from cocaine jump five-fold in a decade

  • Over 4,500 people died from drug misuse in 2020, the highest number since records began in 1993
  • The number is 3.8 per cent higher than one year earlier and marks the eighth year drug deaths have increased
  • Experts have called the figures ‘tragic and concerning’ and called on the Government to take action

Drug-related deaths in England and Wales have risen for the eighth year in a row and remain at their highest level in more than a quarter of a century, figures show.

There were 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning registered in England and Wales in 2020, the Office for National Statistics said. This is the highest number since records began in 1993, and up 3.8 per cent from the previous year.

Addiction charity We Are With You said the figures are ‘tragic and concerning’ and called on the Government to take action.

Deaths from cocaine were five times higher than a decade ago, while there were also spikes linked to MDMA and codeine.

Due to death registration delays, around half of the deaths will have occurred in the previous year and the majority before the coronavirus pandemic, the ONS said.

The figures show that rates of drug-related deaths have risen by 60.9 per cent in the past 10 years – from 49.4 deaths per million in 2010 to 79.5 deaths per million in 2020.

Of the deaths registered last year, two thirds (2,996) were related to drug misuse, and around half (2,263) involved an opiate.

Some 777 deaths involved cocaine – a 9.7 per cent rise from 2019 and more than five times higher than the 144 cocaine-related deaths registered in 2010. It is the ninth consecutive annual rise in deaths linked to cocaine use.

The ONS figures show a north-south divide in rates of deaths due to drug misuse.

Among different regions of the country, the North East experienced the highest rate – 105 deaths per million – three times higher than the lowest rate, which was recorded in London (33 per million).

But overall, rates were the highest in Middlesbrough, which recorded 248 deaths per million, while Epping Forest, in Essex, recorded the lowest proportion (26 per million). 

Wales recorded its lowest rate since 2014 – 51.1 deaths per million – which was an annual fall of 9.1 per cent. The ONS said death registration delays could be affecting the figures.

Males accounted for more than two thirds of the registered deaths (3,108).

Separate figures released last week showed that 1,339 people died from drugs last year in Scotland, which has the worst drug death rate in Europe. 

The highest rate of drug misuse deaths was found in those aged 45 to 49, followed by those aged 40 to 44.

So-called Generation X, born in the 1970s, has consistently had the highest rates of drug misuse deaths in the past quarter of a century.

The ONS said possible explanations for the rise could be that there is an ageing cohort of drug users experiencing the effects of long-term use and becoming more susceptible to a fatal overdose.

And new trends involving taking specific drugs, such as benzodiazepines, alongside heroin and morphine may increase the risk of overdose. 

Dr Emily Finch, vice-chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: ‘Another year and yet another increase in the number of tragic and wholly avoidable drug-deaths. Years of cuts have left addictions services ill-equipped to treat people and prevent these deaths from rising.

‘The Government needs to wake up to the fact that cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths.

‘They have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle rising drug-related deaths by acting on the recommendations made in Dame Carol Black’s landmark report on addiction services. 

‘Funding must increase, the workforce crisis must be tackled, and people living with a drug addiction must have access to the mental health support they desperately need.’ 

Jon Murray, executive director of services in England at With You said: ‘The stark figures released today by the ONS are tragic and concerning. Behind these figures are heartbreaking stories of extreme trauma and resilience. Every drug-related death is preventable and impacts families and communities years down the line. 

‘Our thoughts are with the thousands of people who have lost a loved one in the past year.

‘For many people drug use is a reaction to their environment so it’s no surprise that drug-related deaths are highest in the most deprived areas of the country.

‘Issues such as rising homelessness, poor mental health and a lack of economic opportunities all lead to people using drugs, and for many, these challenges have become worse due to the pandemic. 

‘Too many people who need treatment aren’t accessing it, and too many people are unaware of the potential harms of their drug use.

‘These figures are unacceptable but we are hopeful that change is possible. The recommendations in Dame Carol Black’s Independent Review of Drugs outline achievable steps that will help to reduce the level of drug-related deaths in England and Wales.

‘The additional investment through project ADDER and the newly announced drug strategy are all positive developments but we need to do more.

‘We are calling on the Government to respond to today’s statistics by bringing serious political commitment to this issue and ensuring the appropriate financial investment is made in the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review to action the recommendations of Dame Carol Black’s review.’


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