Calls for overhaul of drug laws as England and Wales deaths surge

"These grim drug death statistics are a clear signal that an urgent change of course is needed in UK drug policy." 

There have been calls for a new approach to drug laws in England, after it emerged there were 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales last year alone.

The figure is the highest since records began in 1993, according to the new Office for National Statistics data.

There were 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2020 – 79.5 deaths per million people. It is 3.8% higher than the rate seen in 2019 (4,393 deaths or 76.7 deaths per million). However, the figures mask the larger rise in England – in Wales, deaths went from 165 to 149 – down 9.7%.

Scotland’s rate was five times that of England, with Glasgow dubbed the drugs death capital of Europe. Nicola Sturgeon is due to make an urgent statement today to address the ‘crisis’.

The figure has been rising in recent years. In 2010, there were 2,747 drug-related deaths in England and Wales – meaning the figure has risen by two thirds in a decade.

Around half of all drug-poisoning deaths registered in 2020 involved an opiate such as heroin (2,263 deaths), while 777 deaths involved cocaine, up 10% from 2019. Cocaine deaths are more than quadruple the amount recorded a decade ago (144 deaths in 2010).

Drug law charity Release’s Policy Lead, Dr. Laura Garius, said that it was time to ‘acknowledge the role that current drug policy, and government inaction, are playing in these deaths’. “We will no doubt see these rates continue to rise if we do not adopt policy reform and invest in overdose prevention sites and harm reduction and treatment, and review the law to end criminal sanctions for possession offences.”

A spokesperson for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation added: “Drug deaths are preventable. A series of parliamentary and expert reports over recent years – including from the government’s independent expert body,the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – have made detailed recommendations, drawing on best practice evidence from the UK and around the world, on how to address the crisis. These calls have been largely ignored…

“Over 60 parliamentarians from all parties have joined calls for the UKs drug laws to be overhauled as a key element of addressing the growing drug death crisis.

James Nicholls, CEO of Transform Drug Policy Foundation called for an urgent change of course in UK drug policy: “Evidence from around the world points to interventions that can help reduce drug deaths, but these have been repeatedly rejected by governments who remain obsessed by tired mantras about more enforcement and police-led crack downs. After decades of failure, they must now take responsibility for a crisis that has unfolded on their watch.

“The proposals set out in Dame Carol Black ‘s recent Independent Review of Drugs are welcome, and we hope the government acts on them. But improving drug services is not enough. The government must also accept that our 50 year old drug laws, based on criminalisation and punishment, are failing everybody.”

In response to Dame Black’s recent review of drugs, the government insisted its top priority was ‘tough enforcement to break the business models of criminal supply chains’ – rather than dealing directly with additions and the drivers of substance misuse. It also reiterated ministers’ commitment to tackle so-called middle class drug use: “[We will] address so-called ‘recreational’ drug use by too many in our society who, knowingly or otherwise, support a dangerous and exploitative market and whose behaviour is both criminal and anti-social.”

But reform group Transform called for a ‘root and branch review of the law’ on drugs to reduce harm, rather than simply bolstering the failed war on drugs. “We need an innovative health-oriented approach that can protect future generations from the continuing failures of the war on drugs,” Nicholls said.

Liz Kendall MP, Labour’s Shadow Social Care Minister, said the figures were ‘heart-breaking’ and called for more investment in public health. Labour stopped short of clearly calling to reform to UK drug laws.

“These heartbreaking figures are a stark reminder of the devastating impact drugs have on families and communities across the country.

“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.

“The government must take action now. We need a new settlement for public health services, a clear target to reduce inequalities and action to minimise harm and help prevent so many dying from addiction.”

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