Drug-related deaths have reached a record level across England and Wales as a growing number of people die after using opiates and cocaine, official figures show.
In 2021, 4,859 people were recorded as having died from drug poisoning, the equivalent of 84.4 deaths per million people, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
This is 6.2% higher than the rate for 2020, the ninth consecutive annual rise and the highest number since records began in 1993.
The figures cover drug dependence, fatal accidents, suicides and complications involving controlled and non-controlled drugs, as well as prescription and over-the-counter medication.
Nearly two-thirds of drug poisoning deaths (3,060) in 2021 were related to drug misuse, accounting for 53.2 deaths per million people.
Men accounted for more than two-thirds of deaths (3,275) from poisoning, a gender disparity that is consistent with previous years.
Those born in the 1970s had a higher rate of drug misuse deaths, with the highest rate found in people aged between 45 and 49.
The ONS said the overall rising trend over the past decade had been driven primarily by deaths involving opiates, but also by those involving other substances such as cocaine.
More than 45% of all drug poisoning deaths (2,219) involved an opiate, but the steepest rise was related to cocaine use. In 2011, there were 112 deaths involving cocaine, whereas for 2021, there were 840 recorded deaths, a sevenfold increase.
Across England and Wales, the north-east continues to have the highest death rates for drug poisoning and misuse, while London and the east of England had the lowest rate for drug poisoning and misuse respectively.
About half of the deaths registered in 2021 will have occurred in the previous year due to registration delays.
The figures show the rate of drug poisoning deaths has risen by 81.1% since 2012, when there were 46.6 deaths per million people.
Charities attributed the increase in drug deaths to the legacy of austerity and how vulnerable communities were affected by the pandemic.
Mark Moody, the chief executive of Change Grow Live, said every drug-related death was a tragedy. He added: “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, policymakers and the people who use our services to make sure that happens.”
David Bremner, the medical director for substance abuse at the charity Turning Point, said the effect of the pandemic on vulnerable groups was reflected in the figures.
He added: “The pandemic exacerbated an existing public health crisis; however, we are clear that drug deaths are preventable.
“At a time of political uncertainty, these new statistics provide a loud and clear call, whatever your political allegiances. 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.
“We need sustained and coordinated action across health, including mental health, housing and social care services, in order to reduce the harm caused by drugs to individuals, families and communities. The government must continue to invest in these life-saving services.”
David Fothergill, who chairs the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said supporting and expanding the provision of the medication naloxone would be crucial in preventing future drug deaths.
“We must support and expand the provision of naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose and provide overdose training for drug service users, drug users not in treatment, family and friends, hostel residents and others,” he said.
Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of the charity Release, said every drug-related death could be prevented if the UK implemented drug policy reform, which includes the decriminalisation of drug possession.
Eastwood added: “Decriminalisation of drug possession – which would end the criminal sanctions for possession of drugs – must be core to any policy that seeks to protect the health and wellbeing of people who use drugs, from young people who are experimenting to those who use drugs to cope with trauma and mental health problems.”