Deaths involving cocaine have risen for the eighth successive year.
According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 708 cocaine-related deaths were registered in the UK in 2019 — twice as many as in 2015 and six times more than in 2011.
Although the drug-related mortality rate was significantly higher in males than females, there was a much sharper increase in female deaths related to cocaine use.
All of which begs two questions: (1) why do cocaine fatalities continue to rise in the UK? and (2) why did female deaths increase so much in 2019?
UK trends in cocaine use
According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), cocaine is the second most prevalent drug after cannabis.
At Cansford Labs, we’ve observed a similar effect in family law cases, with over 40% of positive samples detecting cannabis or cocaine.
Not only that, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA), cocaine use in England, Wales and Scotland increased by 290% between 2011 and 2019.
To explore why cocaine use and deaths are increasing, let’s briefly examine the trends for powder and crack cocaine separately.
UK trends in powder cocaine use
Powder cocaine is the most commonly used stimulant in the UK and the second most prevalent drug overall.
The latest CSEW reported the highest number of powder cocaine users for 10 years at around 976,000 people.
There has also been an upward trend in the reported use of powder cocaine in 16-24-year-olds since 2012-13 — with the largest increase observed in the 20-24 age range.
UK trends in crack cocaine use
Although crack is less prevalent than powder cocaine, the UK has the highest levels of crack cocaine problems in the European Union (EU).
Of approximately 11,000 people to start treatment for primary crack cocaine problems in the EU in 2017, 65% were in the UK.
There are also thousands of people who use crack alongside other drugs. Of the people starting treatment in England, Wales and Scotland in 2018, 7,682 used it as a primary substance but 30,893 used it as a supplementary substance.
According to the CSEW, 66% of people starting treatment for primary heroin use in England said they also used crack, which may account for a large part of the increase in cocaine-related deaths.
Cocaine-related deaths in the UK
In the last 10 years, the rate of deaths related to drug poisoning has been on a “steep upward trend” in England and Wales.
In 2012, drug-related poisoning resulted in 46.6 deaths per million people. By 2019, there were 76.7 deaths per million—the highest rate ever, and a 61% increase since 2012.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the number of deaths involving cocaine has increased around the UK.
In 2018, cocaine was mentioned in 637 drug-related deaths registered in England and Wales — four times higher than in 2012.
Cocaine-related deaths have also increased in Scotland, where cocaine was implicated in 237 deaths registered in 2018 — a four-fold increase on 2014.
As for differences between sexes, the drug poisoning mortality rate increased for the eighth successive year for both.
Although it is still significantly higher for men, the cocaine-related mortality rate increased by 26.5% for females compared to 7.7% for males.
The most up-to-date information on cocaine use is from 2019, so the increasing trends cannot be explained by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Why are cocaine-related deaths increasing in the UK?
So what’s behind the upward trend in cocaine use and deaths?
Although it’s a complex matter, the cause can be traced back to production.
Since 2013, the production of cocaine in source countries has surged, leading to:
- Increased availability
- Increased affordability
- Record-high purity
The purity of cocaine powder at user levels decreased from 51% to a low of 20% between 2003 and 2009. But since then, purity has skyrocketed to a record high of 63% in 2018.
In summary, cocaine is easier to find, cheaper to buy, and much more potent in the UK than it was 11 years ago, which goes a long way to explaining why there are more users and associated deaths.
The Scottish Government Substance Misuse Unit recently commissioned a study in response to increased drug-related deaths among women.
Why was there a disproportionate increase in cocaine-related fatalities among women?
The researchers concluded that the observed trend is “likely to reflect multiple, interacting causes.”
The causes they identified included, but are not limited to, the following:
- Increasing prevalence of physical and mental health co-morbidities in females
- Changing patterns of substance use
- Changes to treatment services and health and social care provision
- Unintended consequences or poor implementation of recovery-oriented practice
- Changes in the social security system
- Cuts in treatment funding
What can be done to reduce cocaine-related deaths in the UK?
According to Dr. Adrian James and Professor Julia Sinclair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, an overhaul of adult addiction services, including a £374 million annual investment in adult addiction services, is required.
This view was echoed by Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release—a charity acting as the national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law.
In a press release later quoted by the BBC, Niamh said the government needs to act on two parliamentary select committees which “cited the need for investment in treatment and harm reduction, supporting calls for overdose prevention sites and calling for a review of the law to end criminal sanctions for possession offences.”
Another way to reduce fatalities is to improve early intervention in cocaine users. Hair testing, for example, is an accurate and reliable method of monitoring drug use over time. It can be used (and is used) by social workers, family lawyers and other professionals to help cocaine users get the care they need before it’s too late.
For more information on testing and monitoring cocaine use, contact us.
Image: Pixabay - No attribution needed
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