Opiates Drive Drug Deaths to Record High in England and Wales

Opiates Drive Drug Deaths to Record High in England and Wales
A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chemist checks confiscated powder containing fentanyl at the DEA Northeast Regional Laboratory in New York on Oct. 8, 2019. (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)
Alexander Zhang

Opiates were among the main causes behind a spike in drug-related deaths in England and Wales, which reached a record high in 2021, latest official figures show.

A total of 4,859 deaths related to drug poisoning were registered in 2021 in England and Wales, equivalent to a rate of 84.4 deaths per million people. This is 6.2 percent higher than the rate recorded in 2020, according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS).

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.

Among all drug poisoning deaths registered in 2021, 2,219 involved an opiate, accounting for 45.7 percent of the total.

Heroin and morphine were the most frequently mentioned opiates, with 1,213 drug poisoning deaths mentioning either one of these substances last year.

Deadly Trend

Drug-related deaths have been on an upward trend in the UK for the past decade. The rates of drug-related deaths have risen 81.1 percent since 2012, when there were 46.6 deaths per million people.

According to the ONS, the overall trend is driven primarily by deaths involving opiates but also by an increase in deaths involving other substances like cocaine.

Among all the drug deaths registered last year, 840 involved cocaine, up 8.1 percent from 2020 and more than seven times the number recorded a decade ago.

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.

New trends involving taking specific drugs, such as benzodiazepines, alongside heroin and morphine may increase the overdose risk.

Pandemic Effect

Mike Trance, chief executive of the Forward Trust, said the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic has made things worse.

He told the PA news agency: “Most deaths are what we call deaths of despair—people who are lonely, they are 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 also blamed the rising death toll partly on people mixing substances, known as “poly drug use.”

A UK government spokesman said the government’s “landmark drug strategy” will provide better support to people recovering from drug addiction and tackle “the criminal supply chains which fuel illegal drug markets.”

PA Media contributed to this report.