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.
All drug deaths 2010 2011: The Year in Drugs

Drugs Deaths: Click for interactive (JAVA) version

  • 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.
All drug deaths excluding alcohol and tobacco 2010 2011: The Year in Drugs

Drug related deaths after excluding alcohol and tobacco: Click for interactive (JAVA) version

  • The numbers fall drastically if you remove deaths involving poly-drug use.
Single Drugs deaths 2010 statistics 2011: The Year in Drugs

Drugs deaths last year after excluding deaths involving more than one drug

  • 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.
Single Drugs deaths 2010 statistics raw1 2011: The Year in Drugs

Source: Office of National Statistics

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.
Helium 2011: The Year in Drugs

Oh, will somebody please think of the children!

  • 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.

Cocaine Ecstasy Amphetamine mephedrone deaths graph1 2011: The Year in Drugs

Deaths associated with cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy and mephedrone

  • 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”.

Snow 2011: The Year in Drugs

More people in NW England are now using unidentified white powders "bubble" than mephedrone or amphetamines

  • 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.
amy winehouse RIP1 2011: The Year in Drugs

R.I.P

  • 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.

riot police 2011: The Year in Drugs

Riot Police in Manchester

steve jobs LSD4 2011: The Year in Drugs

R.I.P

  • 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).
how many bank notes have traces of cocaine 2011: The Year in Drugs

11% of bank notes contain traces of cocaine

  • 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”
Anti cannabis1 2011: The Year in Drugs

Women with a higher IQ are 4.6 times more likely to use cannabis

..The findings stumped the authors of the research and may well have become the first study in history to leave the Daily Mail quite literally speechless. I’d like to propose an explanation. Intelligent people realise that most of the “facts” they are told about drugs are untrue or exaggerated and decide to experiment themselves because intelligent people are adventurous. Why are we only realising this now? Intelligent people rarely get caught and when they do they know how (or know the right people) to get out of trouble.

  • 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:
Confederacy of dunces 2011: The Year in Drugs
“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.” (PDFThe same resolution was handed out in a letter signed by over sixty world leaders, professors, doctors, MP’s and public figures.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) released a tonne of fascinating statistics (PDF) such as:
  • Last year 7283 tonnes of cannabis was seized worldwide.
8 tonne boulder 2011: The Year in Drugs

That is equivalent to a large forest or 910 of these boulders.

  • Last year 42 new drugs were detected in circulation.
New psychoactive substances 2011: The Year in Drugs

"New" Psychoactive substances (new meaning never before monitored by the EMCDDA, not necessarily newly created)

drug dog 2011: The Year in Drugs

80% of searches based on drug dogs found nothing

All in all, in this year’s round up on the war on drugs, the drugs once again didn’t do too badly. If you think you may have a problem with drugs you should of course seek medical help, if there is even a small chance this might be the case it’s worth taking a look at the applications now becoming available to enable you to assess your drug use yourself and track your addiction treatment progress on your mobile phone. Recording your drug use (including alcohol and prescription medications) is a very good way to enable you to see things objectively and help prevent yourself from falling in to a downward spiral.
drugs are bad 2011: The Year in Drugs

"Just Say No"

Footnote
I am aware it’s a tautology to say “alcohol and drugs” because by all definitions alcohol is a drug. This is why I included alcohol and tobacco deaths in this analysis despite the Office of National Statistics (ONS) decision to report alcohol and tobacco deaths separately from drug death statistics. Due to the fact that the data is not strictly comparative, the gap between alcohol and tobacco and most other drugs is actually likely to be far larger than  estimated by the ONS (for this reason, drug deaths data is from 2010 whilst alcohol data is from 2009, both are the most recent ONS datasets available).
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.”
The drugs deaths on the other hand were only required to be linked to drugs without the stringent controls used to record alcohol related deaths.
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”
In my opinion the ONS’s decision to fail to collect alcohol and tobacco death data that is truly comparative to drug death data is a fraud. The absence of alcohol and tobacco on the hundreds of pages of data the ONS produce on drugs shrouds the fact that alcohol and tobacco deaths alone dwarf the numbers of deaths linked to most drugs by a factor of thousands. Playing devil’s advocate, one innocent explanation for the splitting of the data could be purely practical reasons. Such is the disparity between alcohol / tobacco deaths and drug deaths that If you want the data to be comparative on a graph smaller than a football pitch you either have to do what I have done and use an interactive graph, or you have to use a logarithmic scale or find some other way of mashing up the graph. When I tried to make a graph using the data above the graph looked like a representation of the ecosystem. The tobacco deaths ride high like the sky, the alcohol deaths looked liked the sea and the drug deaths in comparison looked like pond life scraping at the very bottom. To even be able to discern the differences between the different drugs in the graph you would have to blow up the graph to the size of a swimming pool.

 

Here’s the longitudinal (graph), after excluding tobacco both because the ONS tobacco data is inconsistently recorded and because it would require the size of the graph to be scaled up by a factor of about ten…
Drug deaths excluding alcohol 5002 2011: The Year in Drugs

All drugs deaths 1993-2010 (ONS)

..Yes, this visualisation of the graph is completely and utterly useless, but that is my point. Here is the raw dataset I collated, my graphs were created using manyeyes. If you think there are any flaws in my case please do let me know using the comments form below. Check out the sources below and have a go exploring the data yourself.

 

Sources:

 

 

 

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)

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  • Anonymous

    Great post!

    I would be curious to see a chart of drug deaths including alcohol and tobacco, where the deaths are divided by the number of users. I think that would be a better comparison. It would shrink the alcohol and tobacco bubbles quite significantly as they are used by a large proportion of the people. The heroin and cocaine bubbles would probably grow a lot.

    • http://twitter.com/PolicyChange Change the World

      No sceptics take this kind of report seriously because it’s so biased by the number of users. It’s a shame, because most of us are well aware of the truth, but we can’t use reports like this to prove it.

      • http://neurobonkers.com Neurobonkers

        Thanks for the feedback, these are important points. The Lancet paper I cited (Nutt, 2010) attempts to address this issue in depth. (It’s open access – you just have to register for a free account with the Lancet to read it). The problem with your suggestions is that there are far too many uncontrolled variables to do this accurately:

        Self report of drug use is infamously unreliable, to be frank we simply don’t know how many people take drugs, it’s illegal – people don’t admit it unless they have nothing to lose – that’s another variable right there, the demographic that admits to drug use may not be your average drug user and is probably less likely to be using pure drugs. If we are realistic we all know that huge numbers of people use drugs but most people don’t consider themselves drug users and most people don’t feel the need to use drugs to the same extent as alcohol – people who use ecstasy and hallucinogens often do so only once or twice a year.
        Polydrug use sways the statistics to an alarming degree. It is pretty much impossible to eliminate this problem so it is crucial to take the bigger picture in to account. Almost all research doesn’t take in to account the fact that statistics based on polydrug use are invalid for looking at the dangers of a single drug. The largest ever study (in terms of both cost and rigorous controls) in to MDMA use for example was unable to exclude other drugs. [Halpern et al. (2011). Residual neurocognitive features of long-term ecstasy users with minimal exposure to other drugs.]
        Most people that report taking drugs don’t test their drugs to see what’s in them – and when they think they know what’s in them they are often wrong.
        The points I’m trying to make by making the raw data available are:

        The public have a right to know the facts and see the raw data for themselves. It’s useful to see the raw data of which drugs killed who without numbers being arbitrarily scaled up to account for hypothetical people that may or may not have died if hypothetically they existed
        The way the (ONS) statistics that are used for academic research are recorded obscures the facts to a horrendous degree because they are not comparative to start with. Drug, alcohol and tobacco deaths are all recorded using extremely different methods (see footnote) so whatever statistical tools are applied after this point are irrelevant because we don’t have valid data to start with.
        Media misrepresentation of academic research is a huge problem, the media simply misreport what studies find.
        The drugs deaths we hear about are over reported in the media to a huge degree and even then they are often incorrect. This skews the public’s perception of what drugs are dangerous and why and perhaps more worryingly creates the illusion that alcohol is somehow safer. (See the graph below by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies)
        Hope that answers your question, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do what you said, people have tried hundreds of times. I just think it’s important to also take a holistic approach.

  • Uberyeti

    Brilliant post! Thanks for collating this information together. I shall be sure to pass it on to those I know who may read it (sadly not all that many people).

    Now if only the people making the laws would understand what insanity this war on their own people is we could release a huge burden of “crime” from the judicial system, and restore the possibility of a normal life to many people who have been blighted by past drug use for which they were punished rather than helped.

  • http://twitter.com/lazaroumterror LazarouMonkeyTerror

    More people die from the anti-depressant my doctor put me on than all the other drugs I take combined. I hope these facts have been quadruple checked because these statistics are explosive and expose the hypocrisy which has to end now!

    • http://neurobonkers.com Neurobonkers

      Sadly the rate of anti-depressant related deaths is always very high due to suicides. 
      See: https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/2299/6044/1/905316.pdf

      It’s a controversial topic. I recommend “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche” by Ethan Watters. Truly a must read for anyone considering anti-depressants.

      • Fluffy

        Suicide activation, particularly in teenagers prescribed anti-depressants, will raise the count for these significantly.  Unfortunately it is an accurate figure that shows many of these “troubled teens” would actually be safer having a “good night out” on some of the illegal highs rather than being medicated with these dangerous but legal drugs.

  • http://neurobonkers.com Neurobonkers

    All data is taken directly from the UK government’s official statistics.

    Differences with the CDC are due to the fact that you are trying to compare raw UK statistics with raw US statistics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Lins/1410961488 Daniel Lins

    hey man cannabis dosent kill!!! thats absurd!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580877779 AlWolf Sandlin

    i question the 2 deaths… from cannabis, i want details. no deaths from cannabis use ever.

    • http://neurobonkers.com Neurobonkers

      See the footnote – unlike “alcohol related deaths”
      the Office of National Statistics definition of “drug related deaths”
      actually includes deaths that are not directly related to the drug such as
      deaths inferred to be linked in some way such as car crashes while under the
      influence and deaths linked to mental illness (all be it tenuously) deemed to
      be resulting from drug  use etc.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580877779 AlWolf Sandlin

        right so as i said no deaths from cannabis…ever.

  • HB

    Hello.  This is a fantastic and well-written website, thanks for making this.  

    However I must point out that using “Number of Deaths”, or the number of anything, as a statistic, is often misleading.  One should divide the Number of Deaths by Number of Users to get the risk of death, or “danger” of each drug.  I would assume there are far more smokers than there are heroin addicts, so a like-for-like comparison of deaths is not as concise as it could be.  

    This could be a substantial (and unfortunately partially correct) criticism from your critics.

    Saying that, I am not sure if this data is available.  Congratulations on a great website!  

  • Jim duffy L.E.A.P.

    this is the best piece of information yet which shows the absolute futility of the War on Drugs and the way that misinformation is used by the tabloids and governments to support  their pointless and un-winnable War on Drugs. When will they realise that all the money wasted on enforcement could be used for treatment and education. Nothing will chance if we continue with the same failed policies. Our young people deserve better.

  • Eiskrystal

    The item is useful without deaths/abusers because it shows that government is demonising what are very minor problems. This takes time and money away from much larger problems and causes undue misery to the very people that were supposed to be helped by the war on drugs.

    What i am surprised is that morphine and heroin are lumped together. Colloquially one is a medical necessity and the other is an illegal drug.

  • drug stats commentator

    Please get your facts correct.  The ONS figures only cover England & Wales not the UK. Secondly, the figures relate to deaths registered in a year, not occurring in a year. Thirdly, there is a delay of about 6 months between a death occurring
    and an inquest being completed and thus the official cause of death
    being available to ONS. Fourthly, ONS does not get toxicology reports so some types of drug deaths are under-identified. Fifthly, about 10% of drug deaths are described as multiple
    drug/substance overdoses or poisonings; thus, the actual drugs involved
    are not included in the detailed breakdowns.

    • http://neurobonkers.com Neurobonkers

      Thanks for your comment, all good points. 

      1. I shouldn’t have let that slip through the net, have published a prominent correction at the top.
      2. Now clarified.

      3. This data is from 2010 and was only published in late 2011, I believe for that exact reason.

      4. Indeed, I’ve looked long and hard without success in to getting access to the raw toxicology reports. 

      5. About 10%? It certainly looks far higher than that! That’s exactly why I’ve also included the table of drugs deaths in 2010 excluding polydrug deaths.

  • alfromoz

    Absolute deaths or deaths per user? The latter gives a better representation than the former because the legal drugs are more widely used than the illegal and anyway only deaths per user can indicate the true lethality of a ‘product’.

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