Drug-related deaths in England and Wales have hit record levels, official statistics show.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures reveal that a total of 3,674 drug poisoning deaths involving legal and illegal substances were recorded in 2015, up from 3,346 in 2014 and the most since comparable records began in 1993.
The record death toll has led to Prime Minister Theresa May facing a barrage of criticism over the policies she pursued while Home Secretary, with Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of drugs and drugs law charity Release, saying: “The Home Office’s pursuit of a ‘tough on drugs’ strategy and refusal to acknowledge the evidence for best practice in drug treatment is quite literally killing people.”
She was backed by Martin Powell, of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, who said: “The Home Office – under Theresa May’s watch – is responsible for the highest number of drug deaths ever recorded.
“That the Prime Minister keeps claiming her drug policy is working should send a chill down the spine of every parent and reasonable person in the country.
“She knows, from countless studies, what keeps communities safe, and it isn't driving people away from help and into the hands of criminals. It is responsible reforms that take the drug market away from dealers, and puts it into the hands of doctors and pharmacists.”
The ONS figures also show that the mortality rate from drug misuse is now at the highest level ever recorded, at 43.8 deaths per million people.
A total of 1,201 deaths involving heroin and/or morphine were recorded last year, and the 320 deaths involving cocaine that were registered in 2015 represented an almost 30 per cent increase on the 2014 total of 247.
The ONS figures also showed that 2,479 (67 per cent) of the drugs deaths registered in 2015 involved illegal drugs only – a 10 per cent increase on the corresponding 2014 total and the third year in a row that this figure has increased.
This rising death toll led Ms Eastwood to claim the Government’s “ideologically driven” drugs policy was partly causing the increase in deaths.
She said: “The shocking rise in drug misuse deaths for the third year running raises serious concerns about the Government’s drug policy and the state of the drug treatment sector in this country.
“Since 2010, we have seen a worrying implementation of abstinence-based treatment under the Government’s ideologically-driven ‘recovery’ agenda.
“This goes against all the evidence for best practice in drug treatment, and is contributing, we believe, to this shameful rise in deaths. Such a hostile environment means people simply don’t want to access treatment.”
One example of the effect of current Government policy, she said, involved “an increasing number of cases in recent years whereby people are being forced to reduce their opioid substitution therapy (OST) prescriptions, or indeed have had them removed altogether”.
Ms Esastwood added: “This is despite OST being well-evidenced in providing stability to people’s lives and it being a vital component of treating opioid dependence. Rapidly removing OST for those who need it can force people back to the black market and significantly increase the risk of death.”
She said the push for people to be ‘drug-free’ had been accompanied by “a worrying cut in funding to community and treatment services nationally, which has impacted on the level of care being offered to an extremely vulnerable and marginalized group”.
Government drugs policy was also criticised by Rose Humphries, of the Anyone’s Child families for safer drug control group, who lost her sons Roland and Jake to heroin when they were aged 23 and 37 respectively.
Ms Humphries, 70, a retired school governor from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, said: “Bitter experience has taught us that the current drugs policy doesn’t work.
“It didn’t protect my children and it probably won’t protect yours. If heroin had been legally regulated, when my son relapsed he could have had access to a clinic with a safe dose and counselling.”
The ONS statistics were issued as an independent expert group convened by Public Health England and the Local Government Association issued a series of recommendations on how to tackle the rising death toll, including a call for improved access to good quality drug treatment.
Rosanna O’Connor, Director of drugs, alcohol and tobacco at Public Health England, said: “Drug use is the fourth most common cause of death for those aged 15-49 in England and we know that the majority of those dying from opiates have either never, or not recently, been in treatment.
“Reassuringly, overall drug use has declined and treatment services have helped many people to recover, but there is a need for an enhanced effort to ensure the most vulnerable can access treatment.”
The expert group said that the reasons for the rising death toll were complex, but could be linked to the an increasing purity of drugs like heroin and an ageing group of heroin users who have multiple physical and mental health problems.
Despite the recent ban on so-called legal highs, the experts also noted that deaths associated with ‘new psychoactive substances’ – while still relatively low compared to fatalities caused by other substances – were increasing.
They concluded that legal high deaths “may present a more significant problem in the future, especially as not enough is known about the long term effects of their use”.
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