UK Cocaine Deaths Have Doubled in Four Years, According to New Data

The Office for National Statistics reports that poverty is the main driver of record fatal drug overdoses.
Max Daly
London, GB
October 14, 2020, 11:34am
Woman takes cocaine using bank note.
Photo: Getty Images 

Deaths from cocaine continue to rise at a rapid rate in England and Wales, particularly among women.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that deaths involving cocaine have more than doubled in four years – from 320 in 2015 to 708 in 2019. Although 80 percent of cocaine deaths are of men, the number of women with deaths linked to the drug jumped by 26.5 percent between 2018 and 2019 to 148.

More than two thirds of those who died after using cocaine, a drug rising in popularity and purity in Britain, were aged between 30 and 50. Research has shown that long-term cocaine users are four times more likely to die from the drug than occasional users, while those using cocaine, usually crack, alongside heroin are ten times as likely to die.

The data found a north-south, rich and poor divide in drug-related deaths, with some age groups in the north east of England eight times more likely to die from drugs than people of the same age in the least deprived areas. The north east, one of the most deprived areas of the country, has seen the highest rate of drug deaths every year for the last seven years.

High levels of deprivation are linked to high levels of historic heroin use and in particular reflect the ageing cohort of Generation X drug users who have been using heroin in combination with other drugs such as benzos and alcohol since the 1980s and 1990s but have been left to rot by the authorities.

Deaths related to pregabalin, an anti-epilepsy and painkilling drug, and one increasingly used by long-term heroin users are spiralling. In 2009 there were four deaths linked to the drug, yet last year there were 244.

Overall, there were 4,393 fatal drug poisonings in 2019, continuing a record rise in drug deaths since 2013 which has been largely fuelled by heroin, cocaine and benzos. Around half of deaths related to drug misuse were from opiates such as heroin. The number of deaths from fentanyl – 59 – continues to be dwarfed by the 36,000 whose deaths were linked to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in the US in 2019.

Deaths linked to MDMA – the drug rumoured to be taken by some of the four young people, including three university students who died in Northumbria earlier this month – fell in 2019 to 78 after a record high of 92 in 2018, while GHB featured in 27 deaths, the same number as the previous year.

Critics of the government point out that it has so far failed to implement the recommendations of its own drug experts on reducing opioid-related deaths. Alex Stevens, professor in criminal justice at the University of Kent, said: “Today's data on drug-related deaths show that they continue at tragically high levels. The government has been advised repeatedly on how to prevent these deaths. They have have failed to act. The grief of thousands of families could have been avoided. It is now up to Home Secretary Priti Patel to take action to reduce these deaths, instead of blocking local authorities from taking the necessary steps.”

Stevens said these steps include investing in opioid substitution treatment (including prescribed heroin), allowing local agencies to set up safer injecting facilities to save lives, and reducing the socio-economic deprivation that is so closely tied to high rates of drug-related death in the north of England and south Wales.

The rise in drug deaths is unlikely to fall anytime soon and instead looks set to worsen. Signs from the US and Canada indicate a significant rise in drug deaths due to COVID-19 so far in 2020.