Deaths from powder cocaine, crack and fentanyl have jumped to record numbers in England and Wales, according to the latest government statistics.
Between 2016 and 2017, the number of recorded cocaine-related deaths increased for the sixth year running, from 371 to 432. Of these cocaine deaths, a significant number are thought to be related to the use of crack cocaine. A drug often used alongside heroin, 200 of the death certificates recording cocaine also mentioned heroin.
The rise in cocaine deaths follows a substantial increase in the purity and use of powder cocaine, especially among young people, and of crack cocaine over the last five years.
When cocaine use was at its highest in Britain a decade ago, between 2008 and 2009, the drug was far less pure and there were around half the number of deaths related to it. Deaths from cocaine were most common among people in their thirties.
Deaths related to fentanyl (and its analogues, including carfentanyl) spiked from 59 to 106. The rising number of deaths from fentanyl and carfentanyl in England and Wales – which still represents a fraction of the thousands of deaths from the drugs in North America – do however signify the slow creep into Britain's street drug market of heroin laced with these highly powerful yet far more economical adulterants.
With a growing popularity among young people, Xanax – the brand name for the benzodiazepine drug alprazolam – was linked to the deaths of 21 people in 2017. However, most of those who died were in their 30s. In Scotland, there were 99 Xanax-linked deaths.
While the number of heroin-related drug deaths stabilised in 2017 after reaching record levels the previous year, the statistics showed a rise in deaths from three prescribed medicines commonly bought by drug users on the black market.
Pregabalin, a drug used for epilepsy and anxiety, was involved in 136 deaths in 2017, compared to zero a decade ago. Sleeping pills zopiclone and zolpidem – known as "the Z drugs" and used most notably in the North East of England – were involved in 126 deaths, compared to 51 a decade ago.
People in the North East are significantly more likely to die from a drug-related death than any other part of England and Wales, a situation that has now been the case since 2012. They are three times likely to die from a drugs-related death than those living in London. The towns and cities with the worst drug death rate are Blackpool, Port Talbot, Hartlepool, Swansea and Norwich.
A "deep dive" by government statisticians into coroners' records of a random sample of 115 drug-related deaths during 2015 and 2017 paints a depressing but predictable picture of an ageing cohort of drug users left to die alone.
The research revealed that half had never engaged with a drug or alcohol treatment service, and found a number of common factors among the dead: they were most typically white males who were single or divorced, living alone, unemployed and with a history of heroin, alcohol and mental health problems. Most of them were found dead in their homes.