Cocaine warning as Yorkshire drug deaths reach record high

Drugs are often a factor in the deaths of homeless people
Drugs are often a factor in the deaths of homeless people
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People are being warned about the dangers of casual cocaine use as drug deaths in Yorkshire have reached a record high.

A total of 484 people in Yorkshire died as a result of drugs last year, the highest number since records began, according to new figures.

This was a rise of 16% compared with 2017, where there were 409 drug-related deaths, according to the data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

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Across England and Wales there were 4,359 deaths from drug poisoning in 2018 -- which was also the highest number since records began in 1993, the ONS said.

More than half of the deaths involved an opiate (2,208 deaths), while deaths from new psychoactive substances, or legal highs, doubled in a year to 125.

And deaths involving cocaine doubled over the three years to 2018, reaching their highest ever level.

Last year, deaths where cocaine was a factor were twice as common among people in their 30s and 40s, than people in their 20s, contrary to the stereotype.

Charities warned people were less likely to seek help for cocaine, which is considered a middle-class drug.

Lee Wilson, director of drug advice and support charity Forward Leeds said: “With a lot of heroin users the equipment is clean and new and they’re discarding it safely. On the other end of the scale club drugs can be used in quite unsanitary environments.

“You get people snorting cocaine off the back of toilets with notes or keys that are filthy but they look down their nose at heroin users who actually are accessing treatment, listening to advice and using clean equipment.

He added that people can be lulled into a false sense of security by using cocaine in a certain environment, like a dinner party or a club, but often do not take into account the dangers of mixing cocaine with alcohol or binging on a drug their body isn’t used to.

Ben Humberstone, deputy director for health analysis and life events at the ONS, said: "Previously, this had been linked to a rise in deaths related to opiates like heroin and morphine, but last year there were also increases in deaths across a wider variety of substances including cocaine and what had been known as 'legal highs'.

"We produce these figures to help inform decision makers working towards protecting those at risk of dying from drug poisoning."

The ONS figures cover deaths involving controlled and non-controlled drugs, prescription and over-the-counter medications.

They also include accidents and suicides involving drugs, and complications such as deep vein thrombosis or septicaemia from intravenous drug use.

Almost half of the deaths registered last year will have happened in previous years, due to the time it can take for an inquest to be completed, statisticians believe, adding that many deaths that occurred in 2018 will be missing from these figures.

Around two-thirds of drug poisoning deaths were from drug misuse (2,917) - continuing a trend seen over the last decade.

The rate in Leeds was particularly high after 2015, with an average of 9.4 people in every 100,000 people dying as a result of drugs. This is thought to be in part as a result of people taking heroin contaminated with fentanyl, which tends to be 100 times more potent than typical street heroin, back in 2017.

However, Sue Gill, chair of York and North Yorkshire Cruse, a bereavement charity, said it was not only towns and cities that were plagued by drug deaths.

“We are a very rural area, obviously for North Yorkshire because we go east towards the coast, and we go north. There are drug problems out in the countryside as well."

She said drugs were "everywhere", despite people often associating drug use with inner-city poverty. She added that referrals for grief counselling to the charity, which receives no public funding in North Yorkshire, have increased by substantially over the last four or five years.

“Unfortunately, the statutory authorities are not able to keep up with the referrals for support for mental health problems."

Busier and more demanding lifestyles were a factor, she said, where people turned to drugs to cope with stress and depression.

"That will equate to more deaths because of drug-related incidents, because people are taking drugs more and more because of mental health problems.”

Drug addiction charity UKAT blamed drastic cuts to drug and alcohol treatment services across Yorkshire and the Humber for the rise in deaths.

Eytan Alexander, managing director of UKAT, described the figures as “saddening but unsurprising”.

“We’ve highlighted the drastic reduction in budget cuts to substance misuse services every year since 2013 and unfortunately, these figures now show the impact this is having on the most vulnerable people living across Yorkshire.

“It cannot be coincidence that as councils here slash drug and alcohol treatment budgets by £8m over six years, the highest number of people on record lose their lives to drugs. We urge councils across Yorkshire and the Humber to invest in effective drug and alcohol services next year to avoid more loss of life.”

Most of the recorded deaths were due to accidental poisoning, and then intentional self-poisoning -- nearly a third of drug deaths in women were deliberate.

Amy Green, operations manager covering Yorkshire at Cruse Bereavement Care, said: “When a loved one dies by suicide, the grieving process can be more complex and difficult to resolve. Family and friends of the person who has died may feel overwhelmed and traumatised by the nature of the death and have many questions about why the person took a drug overdose to end their life."

The Department of Health has been approached for a comment.