Are we winning the war on drug addiction in the UK?

Are we winning the war on drug addiction in the UK?

Not according to William Hague. The Conservative politician says that the “war against cannabis has been comprehensively and irreversibly lost”. He even suggested that the government should consider legalising cannabis, calling current drugs policy “inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date”.
 
But is he right? And how is the UK doing in the war against drug addiction?

Drug deaths in the UK

At first glance, the statistics from 2016 (the most recent year for which we have complete data) don’t look good. A record 3,744 drug deaths were recorded in 2016, which is the highest recorded number since records began in 1993.
 
But before we jump to conclusions, we should look at the numbers more closely. The statistics are broken down into two categories: “drug misuse deaths” and “drug poisoning deaths”.
 
Drugs misuse is used to describe deaths by “controlled” drugs, including legal prescription medicines. Of the 3,744 people who died in 2016, 2,593 died as a result of misusing legal drugs. The deaths include accidents (such as incorrectly using medicine) and suicides by drug overdose. One category that isn’t recorded is deaths from drugged driving, as this can be difficult to record accurately.
 
It might surprise people to learn that legal drugs are more dangerous than illegal ones. Just one insight to any drug or alcohol rehab clinic will remind you that alcohol is the most dangerous drug, not just in the impact it has on the person addicted and those around them, but, crucially, in terms of the numbers of people killed by the drug every year. Although, it’s a given that legal drugs, such as benzodiazepines and opiate painkillers, are also extremely dangerous with large numbers of people in rehab.

What about illegal drug deaths in the UK?

Drug poisoning includes both legal and illegal drugs. Heroin and morphine are the biggest killers, being responsible for 54% of drug poisonings. Here are the figures for drug deaths by drug type in the UK (2016):
  • Opiates (including heroin) 2,033
  • Antidepressants 460
  • Benzodiazepines 406 Cocaine 371
  • Paracetamol 219
  • Amphetamines 160
  • New Psychoactive Substances (or legal highs)* 123
*This is the term used for newly-developed drugs, such as Spice.
 
Deaths for all drug types are up on the numbers from 2012 with just two exceptions: methadone and antidepressants. We haven’t stopped drugs from killing people, so has the war on drugs has failed?
 
On the face of the evidence, the UK’s government hasn’t made much progress in terms of reducing the number of deaths by drugs. It also hasn’t made much progress in fighting the supply of drugs either. Despite spending £1.6 billion every year fighting drugs, the amount of drugs available on the streets of Britain remains roughly the same as it was in 2010.
 
But it’s not all bad news: rates of alcohol and drug-taking among young adults is getting lower than previous years.
 
Millenials, a favourite target of newspapers, went and surprised everyone by drinking less, smoking less and taking less drugs than previous generations. This bodes well for the future, as young adults who don’t use drugs usually grow up to become middle-aged adults who don’t do drugs either.
 
Rates of binge drinking are down from 30% of young adults in 2005 to about 20% of young adults in 2018. Rates of drug use have almost halved from 16% to 8% in the same time period. A similar trend can also be seen with cigarettes, down from 28% of young adults smoking to 16%.
 
What happened to young people? There have been plenty of explanations offered by the commentariat. Young people are too poor, too professional, too health-conscious, too boring or too busy on social media to engage in such risky behaviour. Or, possibly, we’re seeing the effects of a generation brought up on clear anti-drugs messaging during their formative school years.
 
Did the “war on drugs” get through to young people or did other societal changes succeed where the war on drugs failed? Whatever the reason, it looks like the next generation might do better than the current generation in the war on drugs.
 
If you need to talk to someone about drugs, please call us fully confidential on 0800 170 1222.

James M

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