Drug-related deaths across England and Wales have soared to their highest level since records began in 1993.
A total of 4,859 people died from drug poisoning last year, according to the new figures from the Office for National Statistics.
Opiates remain by far the biggest cause of such deaths, although a trend of sharp rises in cocaine-related fatalities has continued despite the pandemic.
Nearly half of drug poisonings involved opiates, which include heroin, morphine and methadone.
This rises to 61% when excluding deaths where the specific drug involved was unknown or multiple substances were involved.
There were 840 deaths from cocaine, a smaller figure but one which has soared seven-fold in the last decade.
Experts say its rising popularity is due to increases in the purity of cocaine sold on the streets while prices have remained steady or fallen.
It meant cocaine-related deaths rose from 708 in 2019 to 770 in 2020 despite lockdowns crippling most forms of nightlife where the drug is commonly consumed.
The ONS said there has been a ‘significant’ rise in 2020 from deaths involving cocaine, methadone and new psychoactive substances.
This is partly due to a rise in people mixing substances, with more than half of drug deaths involving two or more drug types.
But it has also been fuelled by the psychological effects of Covid restrictions, according to Mike Trance, chief executive of the Forward Trust.
He said: ‘I think the pandemic has made things worse. Most deaths are what we call deaths of despair – people who are lonely, they’re using drugs in situations where they don’t have support or other people to protect them. And that was definitely worse during the pandemic.
‘So I think that does have an effect, and that’s what we have to bear down on. We need to provide much better support and inclusion to people who are living very isolated, marginalised lives.’
Mr Trance also criticised ‘tough language’ from public figures about drug users, adding: ‘That message is absolutely the opposite of what we should be saying to people who are struggling with drug addiction.
‘We should be saying that society cares about you. Society offers help. And, you know, if you reach out for that help, then you can turn your life around and make things better.’
In the case of cocaine, this is partly due to continuing increases in street purity but also fuelled by a ‘boom’ in excitable drug users trying to make up for lost time.
Ian Hamilton, an addiction expert at the University of York, told MailOnline: ‘Having stronger and cheaper cocaine has attracted new users some of whom will have been caught out by the purity of the drug and unfortunately overdosed.
‘We know that use of cocaine fell during the pandemic but as restrictions lifted people returned to using the drug, this is also likely to have played a part as their tolerance would have reduced and they couldn’t cope with doses they were using prior to the pandemic.’
Dr David Bremner, group medical director and a consultant psychiatrist in addictions at the Turning Point charity, said social care spending needs to target ‘a reversal of these death rates at a pace that we would find acceptable if this was any other cause of death’.
‘If these were cancer deaths increasing at this rate, we would expect action at a certain pace that I believe we should expect the same for persons with addiction.’
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