Heroin and Morphine Deaths Are on the Rise in the UK

By May Wilkerson 09/08/15

The United Kingdom has seen record amounts of overdoses in recent years.

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The heroin problem in the United States has been well-documented, and our neighbors across the pond are also seeing a surge in overdose deaths.

Fatalities related to heroin and morphine in the UK have increased by almost two-thirds over the past two years, driving up the rate of drug-related deaths to the highest on record, according to a report released last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Last year, there were 952 deaths from heroin and morphine, the highest level since 2001, ending a recent decline.

The numbers served as a wake-up call to policymakers, who have been focusing more on the recent rise in use of legal psychoactive highs, like K2 and bath salts.

“There’s been such a focus on legal highs, new psychoactive substances, that to some extent maybe we’ve been taking our eye off the ball a bit [regarding illegal drugs],” said Harry Shapiro, a UK drug information and policy analyst. He called the new statistics for heroin and morphine deaths “pretty shocking.”

Last year, heroin and morphine deaths accounted for 42% of total deaths related to drug misuse. Shapiro said the numbers raised questions about whether people are being let down by drug treatment programs, leaving treatment too early, or being put off by doctors’ increasing unwillingness to prescribe methadone.

Public Health England calculated that around 60% of drug-related deaths between 2007 and 2012 were people who had never been in treatment, or had not been treated in the previous five years.

The number of deaths involving heroin and morphine increased across all age groups between 2013 and 2014, except for people aged 70 or over, according to ONS figures. The report also highlighted a recent increase in the drug’s supply following a “heroin drought” in recent years, which has also led to higher-purity street heroin and decreasing prices.

But Shapiro said lower prices and wider access to heroin are not the primary causes of the problem. He urged the country’s policymakers to focus on a strategy for prevention and treatment relating to misuse of all drugs. Deaths involving cocaine also rose dramatically last year to 247 from 169 in 2013, the highest rate on record, according to the ONS.

“The issue is really: is anyone going to do anything about it and come up with a national strategy to deal with drug-related deaths?” said Shapiro. “It’s not just in relation to morphine.”

Rosanna O’Connor, director of alcohol, drugs and tobacco at Public Health England, noted that despite the rise in deaths, overall drug use has decreased. This suggests a need for greater treatment, education, and harm reduction strategies.

“Fewer people are using heroin but the harms are increasingly concentrated among older, more vulnerable users and those not recently in touch with their local drug treatment services,” she said. “Reassuringly, overall drug use has also declined and treatment services have helped many people to recover but these figures show the need for an enhanced effort.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.