ONS says 3,744 people were killed by drug poisoning in 2016, amid warnings over danger of former ‘legal highs’ and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl
A record number of drug-related deaths has been recorded in England and Wales as the number of people killed by substances formerly known as “legal highs” and synthetic opioids continues to rise.
Campaigners said it was time for the Government to “take responsibility” for the increase, accusing it of ignoring advice on how to reduce deaths and protect the most vulnerable drug users.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said 3,744 people – 2,572 men and 1,172 women – were fatally poisoned by both legal and illegal drugs in England and Wales in 2016, 70 more than the previous year and the highest number since comparable statistics began in 1993.
About 70 per cent of the deaths were a result of “drug misuse”, with the highest rate coming in the 40 to 49 age category.
Most misuse deaths were accidental, the ONS said, while others were a result of suicide or mental and behavioural disorders caused by drugs.
More than half of all deaths involved an opiate, mainly heroin or morphine, followed by antidepressants, benzodiazepine, cocaine, paracetamol, and amphetamines.
The number of people dying from cocaine overdoses increased by 16 per cent to 371 last year, mostly men aged between 30 and 49.
The Crime Survey for England and Wales suggested that cocaine is the second most commonly used drug after cannabis, with the National Crime Agency recording a significant increase in purity of both crack and powder cocaine that may partly explain the increase in deaths.
The ONS warned of a sharp increase in people dying after taking new psychoactive substances (NPS), which were formerly known as “legal highs” before being banned.
Products that remain available, including synthetic cannabis such as spice and mephedrone, which emulates speed, were the cause of 123 deaths in 2016.
The ONS said 39 people killed had taken NPS drugs that were not banned at the time of their deaths and cautioned it would be several years before statistics show whether the Government’s blanket ban in May last year will have any effect on deaths.
While deaths involving mephedrone, also known as M-cat, meph and meow meow, decreased to the lowest level since 2012, there is growing concern about the violence linked to the use of synthetic cannabinoids, particularly in prisons.
The ONS also warned of a large increase in deaths involving fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid used to manage severe pain, that killed 58 people in 2016.
The drug has been at the centre of a recent overdose crisis in the US and Canada, sparking a warning from Public Health England over the deadly mixing of heroin with fentanyl and other synthetic opiates.
The National Crime Agency has revealed that fentanyl has been linked to another 60 deaths in the UK since December.
It said “highly toxic” fentanyl is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, making as little as 0.002g of the drug potentially fatal.
One of its analogues, carfentanyl, can be as much as 10,000 times stronger than street heroin, with 0.00002g constituting a lethal dose.
Pete Burkinshaw from Public Health England said most recent overdose deaths linked to heroin mixed with fentanyl happened mainly in Yorkshire and the Humber.
“Encouragingly, our investigations in other parts of the country suggest we are not seeing the feared sharp increase in overdoses,” he added.
Most local authorities allow drug services to supply an overdose antidote, naloxone, to heroin users or their families.
The highest mortality rate was in the north east of England, where there were 77.4 drugs deaths per 1 million people – an increase of 13 per cent from 2015.
The area with the lowest rate was the East Midlands, where there were 29.1 deaths per 1 million population.
A Government spokesperson said: “Any death related to misuse of drugs is a tragedy.
”While drug misuse is lower than ten years ago, we are absolutely committed to reducing it and the harm it causes.
“That’s why last month the Government released a comprehensive new drugs strategy, setting out a balanced approach which brings together police, health, community and global partners to tackle the illicit drug trade, protect the most vulnerable and help those with drug dependency to recover and turn their lives around.”