There Were 112 Cocaine Deaths in England in 2011. Last Year There Were 840.

Official data shows a record rise in drug deaths despite COVID-related lockdowns.
Max Daly
London, GB
cocaine drug deaths
Despite lockdowns, drug-related deaths jumped to record levels. Photo: Ollie Millington/Getty Images.

Rising cocaine deaths have helped fuel a record number of drug-related overdoses in England and Wales.

The latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows there were 3,060 drug-related deaths registered in 2021, compared to 1,737 a decade ago. 

This is despite a series of COVID-19–related lockdowns that were expected to reduce access to drugs and the harms from them. 

One of the starkest rises in deaths was down to the use of powder cocaine and crack cocaine, drugs that have become increasingly prevalent in the UK over the last decade. 

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Deaths after taking these drugs have jumped almost eightfold in the last 10 years, from 112 in 2011 to 840 in 2021. This included a rise in teenagers dying after taking cocaine, from six recorded in 2020 to 11 in 2021. 

“We've seen the prevalence of powder cocaine use rising for several years as the drug has become more affordable, purer, and readily available,” said Harry Sumnall, professor of substance use at Liverpool John Moores University. “Crack and powder cocaine deaths can result from both the short and long-term effects of use, as the drug can have serious negative impacts on the heart.”

Of those who died after taking cocaine, a fifth had also used alcohol and 71 percent had taken another illegal drug. The biggest rises in the number of cocaine deaths were in London and the North West of England.

Siobhan Peters, director of services in the North West at drug, alcohol and mental health charity With You said: “Despite how it is commonly perceived, cocaine is not a ‘middle-class’ issue. We are seeing a much more stable supply of higher-quality cocaine available at a reduced price. So it is no surprise that we have seen a rise in deaths involving cocaine as a consequence of all these factors. 

“At the same time, people remain unaware of the harms, especially the dangers of mixing cocaine with alcohol and other drugs. Many long-term heroin users also use crack cocaine, as they are often marketed together.”  

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On Tuesday it was revealed that music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards died aged 31 of a heart attack after taking cocaine on a night out in February. 

Sumnall said drug treatment services have seen fewer people presenting for help for their cocaine use, despite rising levels of use. 

He said the latest figures indicated that it may be longer-term cocaine and crack users, those taking drugs at home rather than out clubbing, who were most vulnerable to overdoses, rather than those cocaine users who would have had their partying restricted by lockdowns. There was a 11 percent increase, for example, in cocaine related deaths in the over-50s age group.

“A large proportion of the rise in cocaine deaths could be due to these long-term health effects, counteracting a potential reduction in short-term harms associated with the restrictions in nightlife we've seen over the last couple of years. I think it’s notable that some of the largest increases in cocaine-related deaths have been recorded in older age groups, who wouldn't be so active in nightlife.” 

The number of deaths from MDMA (82 to 67) and GHB (28 to 14) – drugs most commonly linked to clubbing and partying – were down from the previous year.

The data showed that the majority of deaths involved heroin or methadone. The highest rate of drug deaths occurred in the North East of England, an area with high levels of deprivation.

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The record rises come despite, or perhaps as a result of, the COVID-related lockdowns in the UK over 2020 and 2021. It was presumed that people would find it harder to get hold of drugs on lockdowns and would switch away from recreational drugs such as cocaine. Yet people were still able to buy drugs and were using a vast array of substances despite the pandemic restrictions. 

Data from the US has shown that COVID-19 and lockdowns helped fuel a steep rise in fatal drug overdoses in 2020 and 2021.

In England and Wales, while deaths from heroin decreased, there were steep rises in deaths relating to the heroin substitute methadone and also benzodiazepines such as etizolam – the street valium that is causing huge numbers of fatal overdoses in Scotland and which looks to be edging over the border

The rise in deaths involving methadone, from 516 to 663, could according to Sumnall be the result of the disruption of drug users’ ability to attend treatment caused by lockdowns, COVID-19 and cuts to drug services, and people taking a more lethal variety of drugs due to some drug users changing their regular supplies over the pandemic.