NB: Due to how the ONS report drug related deaths “tobacco deaths” include only deaths registered in England (not Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), while “alcohol deaths” include deaths from the whole of the UK. All other drug related deaths include deaths registered in England and Wales. There are also key differences in the way alcohol and tobacco related deaths are recorded when compared to other types of drug related deaths that suggest the numbers for alcohol and tobacco related deaths should be greater still (see footnote). Lodge your complaint to the ONS for failing to make all types of drug deaths comparable.
Below is a roundup of this year’s drugs news along with the latest available statistical data. All sources are open-access and are listed at the bottom of the page.
- The graph below shows the distribution of drug related deaths registered in the UK according to the Office of National Statistics.
- The stats fit in accurately with the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs conclusion published in the Lancet last year that most popular illegal drugs are generally far safer than the big two legal drugs.
- The numbers fall drastically if you remove deaths involving poly-drug use.
- Excluding deaths caused by polydrug use shows that almost all deaths reported as mephedrone deaths, cannabis deaths and ecstasy deaths were misreported in the media. Most were caused by other drugs or mixing with other drugs (such as alcohol). The data in fact shows that there have only ever been two deaths in the UK solely caused by mephedrone (both last year). There were in fact only five deaths solely related to ecstasy and two deaths solely related to cannabis. This compares to 98 deaths solely caused by paracetamol and 157 deaths solely caused by antidepressants. The major insight from this data is that it is very often dangerous to mix your drugs and it is particularly dangerous to mix drugs with alcohol.
This compares to 81,400 tobacco deaths and 8,644 alcohol deaths last year. The ONS records alcohol and tobacco deaths differently from “drug deaths” so suicides and deaths such as road traffic accidents while under the influence aren’t actually included in the alcohol death statistics but they are included in the drug death statistics making the real disparity even wider than is apparent here (more on this in the footnote).
- According to the ONS data, in 2010 there were more helium deaths than cannabis, ecstasy, mephedrone and GHB related deaths combined. Helium is an inert gas which kills when people use helium to deprive themselves of oxygen. The recent explosion in helium deaths from under two per year until 2008 to 32 last year appears to be due to it’s recent promotion as a form of suicide.
- In 2010 deaths involving cocaine, amphetamines and ecstasy dropped significantly, repeating the previous year’s abrupt downturn following a steep upwards path for ten years.
Evidence from the military suggests this was the direct effect of the exploding UK mephedrone market. The background to this is a year on year rise in military cocaine detection since 2000 followed by a 50% drop in cocaine detection in the military in 2008 which continued through 2009. Mephedrone was banned in the summer of 2010 due to a moral outcry in the tabloids. If we infer that the mephedrone boom was the reason for the fall in illegal drugs deaths last year then we should prepare to see a rise in cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy deaths this year perhaps returning to pre-mephedrone levels by 2013.
- In November one study (PDF) in the North West of England reported on the increasing “indiscriminate use” of “unidentified white powders” described as “bubble” overtaking mainstream drugs in popularity.
It found that self reported use of “bubble” was higher than for mephedrone or amphetamines. 18% of people asked reported having taken “bubble”, amphetamine use in the past month crashed to 3% compared to 9% for bubble. “Survey respondents were not only unclear about, but also apparently unconcerned about the speciﬁc chemical identity of the stimulant white powders they consume”… “a considerable number of respondents were adamant that they had never heard of mephedrone but that they had taken Bubble”.
- In July, the tragic death of Amy Winehouse shocked the world, largely because the cause of death was an overdose of alcohol rather than of the illegal drugs she was infamous for indulging in.
- In August the UK experienced the worst rioting in our history. The reasons for the riots were undoubtedly complex but there is little doubt that drug laws played a part.
According to DOH statistics the proportion of young people that have used drugs is 44.1%. There are 11,728 people currently jailed in the UK for drug offences and a prison sentence is still the most common outcome for someone convicted of drug dealing. In the past year 228,425 people were convicted of possession of a drug and 39,966 were convicted of dealing.
Drugs are second only to “violence against the person” as the primary reason for imprisonment in the UK. According to the MOJ riot statistics 10% of those convicted of taking part in the riots had a previous drug conviction, this compares to 3.6% who were previously convicted of robbery, 5% previously convicted of burglary and 6% previously convicted for violent offences. The UK’s drug laws have criminalised a significant proportion of our society, resulting in millions of people who are permanently unable to find employment and seem to think they have nothing more to gain from being a part of society. In the UK you are 6 times more likely to be arrested for drug offences if you are black, and you’re also 11 times more likely to be imprisoned despite there being no difference in levels of drug use between races. The enforcement of the drug laws may be the foundation of the adversarial attitude taken by a large proportion of people in the UK towards the police.
- In October we witnessed the sad death of Steve Jobs, known for his ground-breaking innovations at Apple computers. He famously described LSD as being “one of the two or three most important things he has done in his life.”
- Have you ever wondered whether the old urban myth that one in five bank notes has traces of cocaine on it is true? This month the police answered that question. The proportion of bank notes with cocaine on them has risen to 11% (up from 4% in 2005).
- A massive longitudinal study last month found that intelligent people are far more likely to take drugs including cocaine, cannabis, ecstasy, amphetamines and magic mushrooms. IQ scores were recorded at the age of five years old, drug use was recorded at the ages of fifteen and thirty.
“The odds of cannabis use were threefold higher for boys and 4.6-fold higher for girls in the top third compared to the bottom third”
- Also this year there have been a number of huge international reports calling for an end to the war on drugs. The Global Commission on Drugs formed by former presidents and experts delivered a resolute conclusion:
“End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.” (PDF) The same resolution was handed out in a letter signed by over sixty world leaders, professors, doctors, MP’s and public figures.
- Last year 7283 tonnes of cannabis was seized worldwide.
- Last year 42 new drugs were detected in circulation.
- Finally, in December the Australian government released data demonstrating that 80% of searches conducted after a dog sat next to a person found nothing.
In 2006 the ONS adjusted their methods for recording alcohol related deaths (but not drug deaths) to “only includes deaths where the cause is specifically related to alcohol consumption and is also the underlying or main cause of death”…. “apart from deaths due to accidental poisoning with alcohol, the definition excludes any other external causes, such as road traffic deaths and other accidents, and suicides and homicides where alcohol may have played a role in the circumstances leading to death. The definition also does not include any proportions of causes where alcohol has been shown to have some causal link.”
Deaths related to drug poisoning as reported by the ONS also include amongst other factors “deaths related to mental and behavioural disorders due to drug use” and “intentional self-poisoning by drugs”
Nutt, D., King, L., & Phillips, L. (2010). Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis The Lancet, 376 (9752), 1558-1565 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)61462-6
Measham,F. Moore, K. Østergaard, J. (2011). Mephedrone, ‘‘Bubble’’ and unidentiﬁed white powders: the contested identities of synthetic ‘‘legal highs” DRUGS AND ALCOHOL TODAY, 11, 137-146 (PDF)
Editorial team (2010). The EMCDDA annual report 2010: the state of the drugs problem in Europe. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, also published in Euro surveillance :European communicable disease bulletin, 15 (46) PMID: 21144426 (PDF)Follow Simon on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, RSS, or join the mailing list.
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