According to the latest report from the Office of National Statistics there were more than 3300 deaths caused by drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2014, with over two thirds related to misuse of illegal drugs.
This figure is the highest it’s been since records began in 1993. Deaths from heroin and/or morphine increased by almost two-thirds between 2012 and 2014, from 579 to 952 deaths; and deaths involving cocaine increased sharply to 247 in 2014 – up from 169 deaths in 2013.
According to the report evidence suggests there was a “heroin drought” in the UK over 2010/11, which affected the purity of user-level or “street” heroin, which fell from 46% in 2009 to 17% in mid 2012. The purity rose back up to 36% in 2014, which is consistent with the UN report suggesting that global opium poppy cultivation (the source of heroin) reached its highest level in 2014 since the 1930s (United Nations, 2015). This means that users can take stronger heroin for the same price.
The Crime Survey for England and Wales suggests that cocaine is the second most commonly used drug (after cannabis) with 2.4% of adults aged 16 to 59 using powder cocaine in 2013/14. The National Crime Agency (2015) suggest there has been a gradual increase in user-level cocaine purity over the last 2 years, and there were marked regional variations in the purity of crack cocaine. These 2 factors are likely to be contributing to the increase in deaths involving cocaine.
The Government recently responded to a petition to legalise cannabis which garnered more than 200,000 signatures with: “The UK’s approach on drugs remains clear: we must prevent drug use in our communities; help dependent individuals through treatment and wider recovery support; while ensuring law enforcement protects society by stopping the supply and tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade. The Government will build on the Drugs Strategy by continuing to take a balanced and coherent approach to address the evolving challenges posed.”
The Liberal Democrats have in the past criticised the “blinkered” Tory approach to drugs policy as they tabled a series of amendments to the Psychoactive Substances Bill in the House of Lords. The law which is currently going through Parliament will prohibit the production, distribution, sale and supply of legal highs or new psychoactive substances, with offenders facing a maximum penalty of seven years. A number of organisations who originally campaigned for the ban have written to the Home Secretary Theresa May to warn that the legislative approach is not a “panacea” and say the Home Office needs to urgently reassess its educational commitment to the problem of legal highs. The new legislation will address this problem by introducing a blanket ban so wide that a large number of harmless substances, including alcohol, caffeine and tobacco will have to be given special exemptions.