Drug deaths registered in England and Wales at highest since records began

ITV News North of England Reporter Hannah Miller spoke to Jake, who attempted suicide because of his drug addiction

There were 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning registered in England and Wales in 2020 – the highest number since records began in 1993, the Office for National Statistics said.

Drug-related deaths in England and Wales have risen for the eighth year in a row and stands at the highest number since records began in 1993, and up 3.8% from the previous year

But due to disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, around half of the deaths reported will have occurred in the previous year.

Responding to the figures, support groups said the rise constitutes a public health emergency and called for the government to “wake up” following years of cuts to addiction services.

Men were more likely to die of drug poisoning with 3,108 registered deaths among men compared with 1,453 deaths for women.

Health Editor Emily Morgan explores how much funding cuts are to blame

Two-thirds (or 2,996) of registered drug poisoning deaths in 2020 were related to drug misuse and those born in the 1970s, often referred to as ‘Generation X’, are most at risk, with the highest rate in those aged 45 to 49 years.

Cocaine deaths increased by nearly 10% and have quadrupled in a decade, with 777 deaths recorded in 2020 compared to 144 in 2010.

Around half of all drug-poisoning deaths registered in 2020 involved an opiate (49.6%; 2,263 deaths).

The North East continues to have the highest rate of deaths relating to drug misuse (104.6 deaths per million people); London had the lowest rate (33.1 deaths per million people).

Separate figures released last week showed that 1,339 people died from drugs in Scotland last year.

The country continues to have the worst drug death rate in Europe.

'I couldn’t control my thoughts and feelings': Jake Hawkesford opens up on nearly taking his own life

Jake Hawkesford lost his uncle to a drugs four years ago, which led to his own spiral of loneliness, despair and addiction.

“My uncle, Dom, was a lovely guy, but he sadly committed suicide in 2017 because of his addiction,” he told ITV News.

“I couldn’t control it anymore, I couldn’t control my thoughts and feelings and I eventually nearly had the same fate as Dom.

“I attempted suicide three months ago because of this addiction, because I couldn’t handle the pain anymore.

“I couldn’t handle what I was putting my family through, because I recognised it.”

'I’m sure as I can continue in my recovery then I’ll say it proudly – I’m a recovering addict'

Jake has been getting help from The Well in Morecambe, a group that helps addicts recover and move on from their habit.

He said: “I never had a structure in my life, I could never follow any routine. But since coming here, I’ve learned life skills.

“I can follow a routine, I can get up in the morning and I can do things in the way of a normal person, because I don’t see myself as a normal person.

“I’m an addict, I’m not proud to admit that at the moment but I’m sure as I can continue in my recovery then I’ll say it proudly – I’m a recovering addict.”

He added: “In my addiction, I was only focused on one thing and that was drugs.

“Nothing mattered, I had no thoughts towards excelling jobs and even small things like getting to appointments on time, paying bills and stuff like that.

“But I’ve just had this sudden wave of positivity in my life and belief and hope I can do it”

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 overdose risk.

The figures follow a landmark review by Dame Carol Black, which set out 30 recommendations to Government to help overcome drug harm and called for significant investment in England’s treatment and recovery system.

She told ITV News her report shows the system was "broken" and needed complete reform. She said austerity had contributed to the rise in drug addiction.

"All the protective factors that protected people like school clubs, youth clubs, care for troubled families, the things that protected people from getting involved in gangs and drugs, they've disappeared. We've had 10 years of austerity," Dame Carol said. She said she wanted to see some drug additions treated as a chronic condition.

"Diabetes is a very good example, if you're diabetic you could have mild diabetes you could have very severe diabetic problems, we don't criminalise you if you don't get on top of your problem immediately. We don't abandon you. You'll have remissions, and then you will have relapses. I believe that's what drug addiction is, and that you have to apply the same principles that you apply to chronic disease."

"I want some drug addiction to be considered a chronic condition" - Dame Carol says she believes applying the same same principles applied to treating chronic disease would reduce drug-related deaths

She said it was in society's interest to tackle the problem.

"You have to think of it in quite a different way. I think if we do that, we'd start to reduce the stigma. These are stigmatised neglected individuals," she said.

"About it 50% of murders have a drug element to them, 49% of the rest of serious crime has drug involvement and a third of our prison cases are taken up by people with a drug problem. If we want a safer society, and I'm afraid you've got to deal with demand.

"So unless we deal efficiently, and properly and completely with the demand side, I'm afraid we can't get on top of it so it's in everyone's self interest to deal with this.

"It's in everyone's self interest to deal with this" - Dame Carol Black, whose landmark review sets out 30 recommendations to Government to help overcome drug harm - says it is in society's interest to act

The government has said it will set up a new drugs unit to help end illegal drug-related illness and deaths, and has launched a consultation to improve access to naloxone, which helps reverse the effects of opioid overdose.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Any death due to drug misuse is a tragedy. To prevent people losing their lives to drug abuse we’re launching a consultation today to improve access to naloxone. This will allow those working with addicts, including police, paramedics and prison officers to administer the drug which helps reverse the effects of opioid overdose and save lives.

“We are already investing £148 million to tackle the root causes of drug misuse including £80 million for treatment and recovery –  the largest investment in the drug treatment system for 15 years.

“Last week the Government announced the creation of a new Joint Combatting Drugs Unit as part of an ambitious new drug strategy which will be published later this year in response to Dame Carol Black’s independent review of drugs.”

Liz Kendall MP, Labour’s Shadow Social Care Minister said: “Drug treatment services are vital not just for those who are themselves struggling with substance abuse issues, but also the wider community. Yet, a decade of Tory cuts to drug treatment and addiction services and chronic underfunding of local councils has left us ill-equipped to tackle the scourge of addiction."

Who to contact if you or someone you know needs help

  • Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year, by calling 116 123. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org

  • Mind also offer mental health support between 9am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. You can call them on 0300 123 3393 or text them on 86463. There is also lots of information available on their website.

  • The NHS offers advice on how to get help for drug addiction.