Drug deaths in England and Wales highest since records began

ITV News Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker explores the reasons behind the record number of drug-related deaths in England and Wales and speaks to some of those affected by addiction 

Drug-related deaths in England and Wales have reached a record high, driven primarily by opiates, new Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show.

There were 4,859 deaths related to drug poisoning registered in 2021, up 6.2% from 2020.

This is the ninth consecutive annual rise, and the highest number since records began in 1993.

The ONS said the overall rising trend over the past decade has been driven primarily by deaths involving opiates, but also those involving other substances such as cocaine. In the last year there have been “significant” rises from 2020 in deaths involving cocaine, methadone and new psychoactive substances.

The figures cover drug abuse and dependence, fatal accidents, suicides and complications involving controlled and non-controlled drugs, prescription and over-the-counter medications.

But due to death registration delays, around half of the deaths reported will have occurred in previous years.

The rate of drug-related deaths has risen by 81.1% since 2012, the figures show.

Just under half of all drug deaths in 2021 involved an opiate. Credit: PA

Of the deaths registered last year, 3,809 were due to accidental poisoning while there were 927 instances of intentional self-poisoning. There were 119 deaths arising from mental and behavioural disorders as a result of drug use, and four deaths following assault by drugs, medicaments and biological substances.

And men were more likely to die of drug poisoning with 3,275 deaths registered in 2021, compared with 1,584 deaths in women.

The charity Turning Point said that while Covid had "exacerbated an existing public health crisis," drug deaths were preventable.

A spokesperson called for the government to continue to invest in life-saving services, adding, “the government’s 10-year drug strategy announced at the end of last year and additional funding coming into services is helping to turn the tide but there is a way to go.”

Mark Moody, CEO of Change Grow Live, the nation’s largest substance misuse and criminal justice intervention service, said: “Every one of these deaths is a tragedy and the only reasonable response to today's statistics is to redouble our efforts to stop more people losing their lives to drugs."

"The government’s new drug strategy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change things for the better, and Change Grow Live will work with partners, policy makers and the people who use out services to make sure that happens," he added.

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Which drugs were the most abused?

Almost two thirds (3,060) of drug deaths in 2021 were related to drug misuse, and just under half (2,219) involved an opiate.

Cocaine deaths were up by 8.1% from 2020, with 840 deaths involving cocaine - more than seven times the 112 recorded a decade ago in 2011.

There were also 663 deaths involving methadone, a 28.5% rise from the previous year (516 deaths). A total of 258 deaths involving new psychoactive substances were registered, up 88.3% from 137 deaths the previous year.

Where did the most drug deaths occur?

People in the North East were more than three times more likely to die due to drugs misuse than people in the East (104.1 deaths per million versus 27.4 deaths per million). They were more than three times more likely to die from drug poisoning than people in London (163.4 deaths per million versus 47.6 deaths per million).

Here is the full breakdown of the rate of drug-related deaths per million people by region: North East

  • Males: 159.4

  • Females: 50.6

North West

  • Males: 113.9

  • Females: 47.3

Yorkshire and the Humber

  • Males: 97.5

  • Females: 41.6

East Midlands

  • Males: 76.2

  • Females: 27.9

West Midlands

  • Males: 78.4

  • Females: 27.6


  • Males: 41.7

  • Females: 13.6


  • Males: 47.4

  • Females: 17.6

South East

  • Males: 60.0

  • Females: 22.4

South West

  • Males: 91.4

  • Females: 32.2


  • Males: 107.6

  • Females: 37.6

What is behind the rise in drug deaths?

In Europe, the rates of deaths involving heroin or morphine have been increasing, while the number of new heroin and morphine users has fallen, the ONS said.

It added this indicates higher rates of death among existing long-term drug users, which could be because:

  • there is an ageing cohort of drug users who are likely to be suffering from the effects of long-term drug use and who are becoming increasingly susceptible to a fatal overdose

  • new trends in mixing specific drugs, including gabapentinoids and benzodiazepines, with heroin or morphine, may increase the risk of an overdose

Mike Trance, chief executive of charity the Forward Trust, said the rise in drug-related deaths comes amid people mixing substances, known as “poly drug use."

“I think the pandemic has made things worse. Most deaths are what we call deaths of despair, people who are lonely, they’re using drugs in situations where they don’t have support or other people to protect them, and that was definitely worse during the pandemic," he said.

“So I think that does have an effect, and that’s what we have to bear down on. We need to provide much better support and inclusion to people who are living very isolated marginalised lives.”

Mr Trance also hit out at the “tough language” of condemnation from politicians and other public figures about clamping down on people who use drugs.

He said: “That message is absolutely the opposite of what we should be saying to people who are struggling with drug addiction.

“We should be saying that society cares about you. Society offers help. And, you know, if you reach out for that help, then you can turn your life around and make things better.”

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.

  • 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.