Drug-related deaths in England and Wales are the highest they have been since records began more than a quarter of a century ago, official figures show.
There were 4,359 deaths from drug poisoning recorded in England and Wales in 2018 – the highest number since records began in 1993, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
The official body said it was also the highest annual increase since records began, rising 16 per cent (603 deaths) from 2017.
The number of deaths caused by cocaine (pictured) and legal highs across the UK has doubled
More than half of the deaths involved an opiate (2,208 deaths), while deaths from new psychoactive substances, or legal highs, doubled in a year to 125.
And deaths involving cocaine doubled over the three years to 2018, reaching their highest ever level.
Ben Humberstone, deputy director for health analysis and life events at the ONS, said: ‘The number of deaths from drug use in 2018 was the highest since our records began in 1993. We have also seen the biggest year-on-year percentage increase.
‘Previously, this had been linked to a rise in deaths related to opiates like heroin and morphine, but last year there were also increases in deaths across a wider variety of substances including cocaine and what had been known as ‘legal highs’.
Heroin and other opiates are the most frequent killers of drug users living in the UK, the Office for National Statistics says
‘We produce these figures to help inform decision makers working towards protecting those at risk of dying from drug poisoning.’
The ONS figures cover deaths involving controlled and non-controlled drugs, prescription and over-the-counter medications.
They also include accidents and suicides involving drugs, and complications such as deep vein thrombosis or septicaemia from intravenous drug use.
Almost half of the deaths registered last year will have happened in previous years, due to the time it can take for an inquest to be completed, statisticians believe, adding that many deaths that occurred in 2018 will be missing from these figures.
Around two-thirds of drug poisoning deaths were from drug misuse (2,917) – continuing a trend seen over the last decade.
Males accounted for more than two-thirds of drug poisonings (2,984, compared with 1,375 females).
Most of the recorded deaths were due to accidental poisoning (80 per cent of males and 67 per cent of females), and then intentional self-poisoning (16 per cent of males and 30 per cent of females).
The remaining deaths were caused by mental and behavioural disorders as a result of drug use or assault involving drugs.
Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said: ‘These figures are devastating for the individuals who have lost their lives, and for their families and society. The current “war on drugs” approach simply isn’t working.
‘It’s clear we are facing an addiction crisis – yet Boris Johnson is pushing ahead with deep cuts to substance misuse and addiction treatment budgets.
‘The government’s austerity agenda and short sightedness in this area is failing some of the most vulnerable in society. Ministers must reverse cuts to addiction services and start treating this issue as the public health emergency it is.’
Ian Hamilton, a substance abuse researcher at York University, told MailOnline: ‘With a 13 per cent rise in drug related deaths between 2017 & 2018, we now have the highest recorded number of drug related deaths in England & Wales. 4359 people have died, more than 10 people a day on average. We have the highest rate of drug related deaths in Europe, as the UK accounts for 1/3 of all European drug deaths.
‘Despite the often reported concern about young people dying due to ecstasy it is heroin that continues to be the drug that accounts for most of these deaths. There are significant regional variations, with more deprived areas and coastal areas having the highest rates of death compared to more affluent areas.
‘These deprived communities have also seen the greatest cuts to drug treatment with some having budget cuts of up to 50 per cent. It is no coincidence that areas with the greatest cuts to treatment budgets have also experienced the greatest number of drug related deaths, a cruel double blow to these communities.
‘It is no surprise that deaths due to cocaine are now the highest on record as use of the drug has surged in recent years at the same time the strength of cocaine has increased, catching out naive and experienced users.
‘Unless the cuts to treatment budgets are reversed we will see a new record set next year in drug related deaths, this issue needs to be a political priority but I fear little will change.’