The number of people dying after taking cocaine rose by 20 per cent last year as the total number of drug-related deaths in the UK reached its highest level for almost a decade.
Female drug deaths in England and Wales also increased by 17 per cent, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics.
There was a total of 2,928 drug poisoning deaths in 2008, an increase of 11 per cent on the previous year and the highest figure since 2001. Almost a third involved heroin or morphine, and anti-depressants were responsible for 381 deaths. The figures covered accidents and suicides involving drug poisoning, as well as deaths due to drug abuse and dependence.
Last month, figures showed that almost a million adults used cocaine in England and Wales last year, a rise of 25 per cent. About one in 10 people admitted trying the drug – three times as many as 15 years ago – with 439,000 of users in their late teens or early 20s.
Today, drug charities said the rise in cocaine-related deaths could be explained by its wide availability and the fact it has fallen in price over the last 10 years. In some areas of the UK, a gram can now be bought for as little as £30.
“A lot of people who take cocaine will be drinking as well,” said Elliot Elam, of the drug treatment charity Addaction. “When it’s taken with alcohol, it forms a compound in the stomach which is hugely poisonous and can be deadly, causing heart attacks and all sorts of other problems which most people aren’t aware of.”
Martin Barnes, chief executive of the drug information service DrugScope, said that because a lot of the cocaine bought in the UK was weak, users were taking more of it to achieve a high, increasing the danger of an overdose if they suddenly came across a purer form of the drug.
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, described the figures as “horrifying” and accused the Government of failing in its policies on illegal drugs.
He said: “The toll of damage from drugs is immense and the cost to the NHS is enormous. Ministers must make sure that schools and public services work together to make sure that the message gets out that drugs kill.”
Earlier this week, the Government said it would ban a range of drugs which claimed to give people “legal highs” by the end of the year. They include the chemical GBL, herbal mix Spice and BZP, which can be used as a substitute for ecstasy.