As reform groups and some bereaved families called for changes in the substance abuse laws, figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) also showed that overall drugs deaths had hit record levels for the fourth year in a row.
As well as showing that cocaine deaths had increased by 16 per cent to reach their highest level since records began in 1993, Monday’s ONS figures indicated that deaths from fentanyl and fentanyl derivatives had increased from 59 in 2016 to 106 in 2017 – a rise of nearly 80 per cent.
The most dramatic element of the increase involved deaths from variants of fentanyl, referred to by the ONS as “fentanyl analogues”. These rose from just one death in 2016 to 31 in 2017. Of these 31 deaths, 27 – 87 per cent – were from addicts taking carfentanyl, a drug used by vets to tranquilise elephants. It is 100 times stronger than fentanyl which itself is up to 100 times stronger than street heroin.
Although the death toll from fentanyl and its analogues is nowhere near that experienced in the American opioid epidemic, the ONS figures do suggest that a drug whose US street names include “drop dead” and “serial killer” is gaining an increasingly destructive foothold in the UK illegal drugs market.
Monday’s ONS statistics also add to fears about fentanyl and carfentanyl being manufactured in backstreet laboratories in the UK. Their publication comes 16 months after doctors and drugs workers were warned to be on the lookout for signs that addicts were using the two opioids following a spate of deaths and the discovery of an illegal drugs laboratory by West Yorkshire Police in April 2017.
According to the ONS, carfentanyl had not been mentioned on English and Welsh death certificates before 2017, but by May of this year it was being reported that fentanyl and carfentanyl had been linked to at least 125 deaths in the UK in 2017 and 2018. The ONS figures now suggest that in 2017, 75 people were killed by fentanyl in England and Wales, in addition to the 31 who died from taking its analogues.
The ONS figures also show that there were 3,756 deaths from drugs of all types in 2017, a marginal increase on 3,744 in 2016, and the highest total since comparable records began in 1993.
The overall English and Welsh toll of deaths related to all forms of drug poisoning has now increased for five years in a row since 2013, with the 3,346 fatalities in 2014 surpassing the earlier record set in 1999 when 3,110 people died.
The death toll from drug misuse has also been at record or near-record levels for five years in a row, with the 2017 total of 2,503 being a statistically insignificant change from the 2016 figure of 2,596.
As well as being a record, the 432 deaths from cocaine also made 2017 the sixth year in a row in which there had been an increase in deaths from the class A drug.
The ONS figures prompted Martin Powell of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation to demand changes in the law.
He said: “After five years of record or near-record drug related deaths, the UK government has nowhere left to hide.
“They are responsible for vulnerable people dying in droves, because they are blocking, or refusing to fund, measures proven in other countries to save lives.
“No one has ever died from an overdose in a supervised drug consumption room or heroin prescribing clinic, anywhere. In Portugal – where drug use is decriminalised – the drug death rate is less than a tenth of ours.”
Mr Powell added: “The government must fully fund drug treatment, stop criminalising people who use drugs and allow supervised drug consumption rooms now.
“Longer term, all political parties should back legal regulation of the drug market to take it out of the hands of criminals, save lives, reduce crime and protect our communities.”
She said: “Behind each figure in these latest statistics was a real person, a person who once had hopes and dreams – as did my two sons who were killed by illegal heroin – but they are treated as collateral damage in the government’s drug policies.
“The government is complicit in these deaths because it will not try the successful measures that work in other countries to reduce drug deaths and crime.
“Those of us in the Anyone’s Child campaign can see the evidence of what works – including legally regulating drugs. Why can’t the government?”
The ONS figures showed that overall NPS deaths in England and Wales had halved from 123 in 2016 to 61 in 2017.
Much of that drop, however, was accounted for by the falling death toll from cathinones including mephedrone, also known as M-cat, which went from 31 in 2016 to 7 in 2017.
There was a much more modest drop when it came to synthetic cannabinoids including spice, the drugs that were causing the most problems when the government banned legal highs in 2016. The death toll went from 27 synthetic cannabinoid deaths in 2016 to 24 in 2017.
By comparison, in 2015, before the May 2016 legal highs ban, synthetic cannabinoids accounted for 8 deaths.
The latest figures would therefore suggest that in 2017 the post-ban death toll was three times that recorded in the last full year before legal highs were made illegal.
When dealing NPS was banned in May 2016, to be followed by possession being made illegal after spice and allied synthetic cannabinoids were made controlled class B drugs in December 2016, the government was warned that its policy would lead to more fatalities.
Professor David Nutt, the former government drugs tsar, told The Independent: “There will be no quality control – people won’t stop using legal highs, they will just use more dangerous ones.”
Since the ban was introduced, there have been claims that in some places getting synthetic cannabinoids has become as easy as ordering a takeaway, and repeated reports of towns and cities being plagued by “spice zombies” who have been rendered catatonic by the drug.
There have also been repeated warnings that spice abuse by inmates is causing havoc inside UK prisons.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Drugs can devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities. Whilst operational policing decisions are for chief officers to make, the government and the public expect the police to enforce the law. The Serious Violence Strategy also includes new initiatives to combat the illegal drugs market, including a new National County Lines Coordination Centre.”
A government spokesperson added: “Any death related to misuse of drugs is a tragedy. We want everyone across the country to get the help, treatment and support they need to live a drug-free life and we are funding local authorities £16bn over the current spending period to deliver these and other public health services.”
“Our drug strategy 2017 brings together police, health, community and global partners to tackle the illicit drug trade, protect the most vulnerable and help those with a drug dependency to recover and turn their lives around.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies