Inside The Link Between Overdose Spikes And Treatment Cutbacks

By Paul Fuhr 10/24/17

Since 2013, a third of UK city councils cut their drug treatment spending entirely, only to see the number of drug-related deaths spike.

a person purchasing pills illegally from another person in a hoodie.

Many overdose victims in England are also the victims of a deadly cause-and-effect, argues a recent Guardian story. Reports indicate that wherever drug treatment funding dries up, cases of heroin and crack cocaine overdoses go through the roof.

“Over the past four years, councils in 85% of areas that have an above-average drug mortality rate have reduced the amount they spend on drug treatment,” the article said, citing a disturbing correlation between drug fatalities and the local addiction services available. Since 2013, a third of UK city councils cut their drug treatment spending entirely, only to see the number of drug-related deaths spike.

Blackpool, for example, has had the highest number of drug fatalities in England and Wales for six years running. With a record 20 deaths for every 100,000 people, it’s also no coincidence that the coastal town has cut more treatment funding than anywhere else in England. In fact, it’s projected that Blackpool’s drug treatment budget will be “more than halved by 2018.” 

The UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), a recovery committee that makes recommendations to the government, has similarly sounded the alarms. In its September 2017 report, the ACMD warned that “maintaining funding of drug treatment services is essential to preventing drug-related death and drug-driven crime in communities.”

The report made clear that when the money available for substance misuse services vanished, it would spell certain death. Among the council’s other observations were “real concerns that the cuts in funding would lead to increases in drug-related deaths,” not to mention that “a lack of spending on drug treatment is short-sighted and a catalyst for disaster.”

As such, Blackpool won’t be alone: Bristol, Gateshead, Portsmouth, and Durham could soon experience abnormally high overdose rates as a result of their newly slashed drug-treatment dollars.

Now, the question becomes: If the UK government is aware of the effects of its budget cuts, does it actually care?

“Funding cuts are reducing the ability of drug treatment services to reduce the risk of death among people using heroin,” Alex Stevens, a Kent University criminal justice professor told The Guardian. “The government is fully aware that drug-related deaths are highest in the places with the highest levels of deprivation and that they are cutting budgets the deepest in areas with deepest deprivation.”

That’s pretty black-and-white—especially since it used to be the opposite: “High levels of [government] investment drove down drug-related deaths in the 2000s, when services were jointly commissioned by the National Health Service (NHS) and local authorities,” the Guardian said. Those days have long since past, as they’ve turned over drug treatment programs to local councils in 2012. 

The Guardian story also reports that drug-related deaths in the UK are at an all-time high: “3,744 people last year, compared with 2,640 a decade ago” as well as “drug-related hospital admissions [having increased] by 50% over the past decade.”

Another factor, the story says, is that the government decided to “treat heroin users with methadone less often and with lower doses, which [addiction psychiatry professor Colin Drummond] described as ‘political interference in what is essentially a clinical issue.’” People who stopped taking treatment-prescribed methadone returned to street drugs and died.

Reducing methadone prescriptions before users are ready for that change isn’t just irresponsible, Professor Stevens observed: it’s a prescription for death.

If nothing else, there are telling trends all throughout the UK—ones that towns should take lessons from. Before the next budget is blindly cut, it’s important to consider how many countless lives would hang in the balance—and on the balance sheet. 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.