More people are ending up in hospital with physical or mental health problems related to drug use than at any time in the past 10 years, despite an overall fall in the number of people using illegal drugs, figures show.
There were 14,279 cases of people admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of poisoning by illicit drugs in England in 2014-15, the latest year for which figures are available – a 57% rise since 2004-05 and up 2% year on year.
About 2.7 million people in England and Wales used illicit drugs in the past year
At the same time, 74,801 hospital admissions resulted in a primary or secondary diagnosis of drug-related mental health and behavioural disorders, a 9% rise over 2013-14 and more than double the level of 10 years ago, according to the data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).
The figures will prove uncomfortable for policymakers who say they are keen to minimise the harm caused by drugs in society, particularly with separate data from the crime survey of England and Wales, also published on Thursday, showing a continued decline in drug use. Despite that, deaths from drug poisoning are at an all-time high.
Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), which last month called for the decriminalisation of drugs, said the contrasting figures showed up UK drugs policy as a “continued failure”.
She said: “Despite falls in use, more people are dying and suffering serious harm to their health from drug misuse than ever before. This is largely a result of a drugs policy that has over-focused on criminal justice at the expense of public health, pushing the most vulnerable users to the margins of society and discouraging them from coming forward for treatment and support.
“Across the globe, many countries have started to turn this situation around by decriminalising drug use and moving towards policies based on public health and harm reduction. Given yet more evidence that harm to the public is increasing, the time is now right for the UK to adopt a new approach to drugs policy.”
Deaths related to drug misuse in England and Wales are at their highest level since comparable records began in 1993
The HSCIC data showed that adults between the ages of 16-34 were the most likely to end up up in hospital for drug poisoning, with that age group constituting 45% of cases. Slightly more than half – 54% – of those admitted were men. Blackpool borough council had the highest rate of admissions, with 103 per 100,000 of population.
Hospital admissions for drug poisoning are up 57% in the past 10 years
Admissions in England with a primary diagnosis of poisoning by illicit drugs
Among those admitted to hospital with primary or secondary diagnoses of drug-related mental health and behavioural disorders, most (59%) were aged between 25-44, and 69% were male. Liverpool had the highest rate of admissions, with 444 per 100,000 population. Overall, the north-west had the highest hospital admissions for drug-related problems of any English region.
Hospital admissions with a primary or secondary diagnosis of drug-related mental health and behavioural disorders have more than doubled in the past 10 years
Increases in hospital admissions for drug-related problems mirror a soaring rate of drug deaths which was first reported by the Office for National Statistics last September and was highlighted again in the HSCIC report on Thursday.
Coroners attributed 2,248 deaths to drug misuse in 2014, the latest year for which that data is available, an increase of 15% on 2013. The figure represents a 44% rise from 2004 and the highest number of drug deaths since at least 1993, when comparable records began.
But Paul Hayes, chief executive of Collective Voice, an umbrella group for third-sector substance misuse services, said that merely blaming the increase in deaths on austerity cuts to drug treatment was simplistic. A number of factors including increased availability of strong heroin and an ageing population of drug users was to blame for the increase in deaths, which Hayes said was more a “return to trend” than a dramatic escalation.
“It isn’t use that’s driving it, it’s age and vulnerability,” Hayes said. “Their lung function is shot to pieces, their livers are shot to pieces, their hearts aren’t very good. So [with] the same behaviour in terms of using drugs that they could get away with when they were 25, when they’re 45 they keel over and die.”