A Welsh charity says a scheme it runs to train drug users in the use of an antidote is saving lives as official figures show drug–related deaths have risen again. 

The figures for England and Wales show a rise in drug-related deaths for the eighth year in a row and they are now at their highest level in more than a quarter of a century. 

There were 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning registered in England and Wales in 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said. 

This is the highest number since records began in 1993, and up 3.8 per cent from the previous year.

There is however a belief from those working to support people afflicted by drug dependency that the tide could be turning. 

Wales recorded its lowest death rate since 2014 – 51.1 deaths per million – which was an annual fall of 9.1 per cent. However, the ONS has cautioned death registration delays could be affecting the figures. 

On the street in Newport, outreach worker Elwyn Thomas is confident that a pilot project to train those using drugs to give an injection when someone has had an overdose is already saving lives. 

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Elwyn, who works for the Kaleidoscope charity which supports those with drug dependencies, is leading the pilot to train people in the use of naloxone which rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.

As well as having trained those using drugs, the pilot has also taught police officers in Newport how to use it and is about to start training the city’s traffic wardens. 

“My partners have lived experience of street injecting and they go out and find other people and train them up, it’s a peer to peer pilot," Elwyn told The National. 

“It has absolutely made a difference in Newport.”

The injection is intended to reverse an overdose and buy time for an ambulance to arrive. 

Since April, Elwyn’s team of three has delivered 230 naloxone kits, which Elwyn says is four times as many kits his employer’s clinical team had delivered in the same two month period in 2019 and 2020. 

“Three guys with lived experience have delivered four times as many as a massive clinical team," he continued.

“We are being held up now as the gold standard, with other teams in Wales looking at us, and I feel that without a shadow of a doubt we have contributed to a reduction in opioid deaths in Newport since April. 

The National Wales: One of the naloxone kits being handed to drug users in NewportOne of the naloxone kits being handed to drug users in Newport

North Wales Police has also trained its officers in the use of naloxone spray which can be used to treat overdoses of drugs including heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers. 

When the force rolled it out to all officers, after a trial in Flintshire where there had been 21 drug-related deaths in two years, former police and crime commissioner Arfon Jones described it as one of the proudest moments of his tenure. 

The long-term drugs reform campaigner said he was passionate about the issues as the UK has more drug deaths than anywhere else in Europe. 

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Though drug use is a health issue, and the responsibility of the Welsh Government, drugs are also subject to criminal law, the responsibility of the UK government.

The UK Government has said it will set up a new drugs unit to help end illegal drug-related illness and deaths, and has launched a consultation to improve access to naloxone. 

Responding to the ONS figures, support groups said the rise constitutes a public health emergency and called for the UK Government to “wake up” following years of cuts to addiction services in England. 

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Eytan Alexander, a recovering addict and chief executive of the UK Addiction Treatment Group, said the rise is “saddening but unsurprising”. 

He said: “We’re living in a parallel pandemic; a drug, alcohol and mental health pandemic that has only worsened due to the virus. 

“Enough is enough now, we need to come together as a society and take real action to help vulnerable people before more people lose their lives.” 

Dr Emily Finch, vice-chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Years of cuts have left addictions services ill-equipped to treat people and prevent these deaths from rising.” 

She called for a shift in England to harm reduction policies, which are being pursued in Wales. 

“The Government needs to wake up to the fact that cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths.” 

Clare Taylor, national director of operations at Turning Point, said every drug-related death is preventable and the rise constitutes a “public health emergency”. 

What do the ONS figures show us?

Due to death registration delays, around half of the deaths will have occurred in the previous year and the majority before the coronavirus pandemic, the ONS said. 

The ONS figures cover fatal accidents, suicides and complications involving controlled and non-controlled drugs, prescription and over-the-counter medications. 

The National Wales:

England’s North East experienced the highest rate – 104.6 deaths per million – three times higher than the lowest rate, which was in London: 33.1 deaths per million.

They show that rates of drug-related deaths have risen by 60.9 per cent in the past 10 years – from 49.4 deaths per million in 2010 to 79.5 deaths per million in 2020. 

Of the deaths registered last year, almost a fifth were due to accidental poisoning (861), followed by mental and behavioural disorders as a result of drug use (705). 

There were 500 instances of intentional self-poisoning. 

Two thirds (2,996) were related to drug misuse, and around half (2,263) involved an opiate. 

Some 777 deaths involved cocaine – a 9.7% rise from 2019 and more than five times higher than the 144 cocaine-related deaths registered in 2010. 

It is the ninth consecutive annual rise in deaths linked to cocaine use. 

Males accounted for more than two thirds of the registered deaths (3,108). 

Separate figures released last week showed that there were 1,339 drug related deaths registered in Scotland last year, and the country continues to have the worst drug death rate in Europe. 

Help, support and a free 24/7 live chat support service for drug abuse can be found at www.ukat.co.uk/drugs/v58/ 

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