DrugsDeaths: 'It's a Horrendous Figure to See' - Researcher

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Alarming figures published today in England and Wales show that Britain is facing a public health emergency as drug-related deaths have hit record levels, prompting calls for damaging cuts to treatment services to be urgently reversed.

Sputnik spoke on the issue with Ian Hamilton, Researcher in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York.

Sputnik: The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported on Friday that 4,359 deaths from drug poisoning were recorded in England and Wales in 2018. If we compare these numbers with figures published in July 1,187 people died taking drugs in Scotland. These are horrendous figures to see from Britain. Ian, could you tell us a little bit about what these figures mean for Britain?

Ian: It's a horrendous figure to see and it's the highest on record or since records began back in 1993 so clearly something's going badly wrong. As always there's no simple explanation, it seems to be a combination of two or three different things, so we have a group of people who've been using drugs for some time and by the time they get to the 40s, and 50s, become physically unwell and that seems to be causing some of them to die.

At the same time and over the last few years we've seen variable purity and heroin and that will catch some people out as it becomes more potent and less potent - it's quite difficult to know how to try and treat a particular dose but the other thing is no coincidence that's happened in parallel is really savage cuts to drug treatment.

Why that matters is we know that drug treatment and being in treatment protects people in terms of their risk of mortality and overdosing in particular. At the same time we've had cuts in drug treatment we are now, unfortunately, seeing the really horrific consequences that some people are paying with their lives.

Sputnik: Upon closer inspection, it seems that two-thirds of drug-related deaths in England and Wales were males. Why are more men dying from drug deaths compared to women? Is it surprising?

Ian: It's not surprising because in the population, not just for opiates but for most drugs, we see twice as many men using drugs as women. Given that more men are exposed to drugs - that obviously increases the numbers who unfortunately will develop problems and die. In saying that we think women's use of drugs and women's deaths are undercounted. To give you an example, we think that coroner's less likely to investigate an adverse death in a female when a male and it may be that we've got an underreporting of female deaths.

Sputnik: When we compare the government’s policy on drugs next to these numbers, it’s impossible to deny that the government is failing to tackle this worsening issue. In fact, it was only last month that Scotland was ruled the worst country in the EU for drug deaths. Firstly as an expert this field, how would you like to see the government respond to these figures today but also how would you like to see the government act on its policy to drugs in the future?

Ian: My belief is that the government won't do anything unless there's popular support. I think much as we do want the government to act ahead of public opinion, they just want and I'm afraid public opinion is unlikely to support investment, time, or the kind of prioritization of people who use drugs - there's other things that you would view is more important.

That's really sad because we have really good evidence to show how these deaths could be reduced and reversed, which always needs to happen as a priority. So making sure people aren't rushed through treatment, or that they're given the optimum doses substitute drugs like Subutex and Methadone and also perhaps going a bit further and looking at the possibility of opening up drug consumption rooms and facilities and I know that's something that people in Glasgow have been pushing for a while but the home office and the government in England seem to be holding that back.

So I agree with you I think that all things that can be done, but I think what really needs to happen is for the public to get behind this and they're just not there at the moment.

Sputnik: If this is an issue that's continually ignored and we continue down the same track. What could we be seeing the future?

Ian: Well I'm afraid we're going to be having the same conversation in a year's time where another new record will be set and it won't be 4359 it will be a much higher figure and that's horrific. If this was something we didn't have the answer to then it might be a different matter but this is something we know how to solve so that's what makes it kind of doubly depressing. You and I can see what's going to happen with this and in all likelihood will happen - we will see an increase in drug-related deaths next year.

The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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