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Drugs are killing more Brits than ever before. Who’s responsible?

The government says its the drugs themselves that are dangerous. Some campaigners think it’s the lack of government oversight that kills.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just released how many ‘drug poisoning’ deaths there were in England and Wales for 2018. The figures have freaked people out because they’ve shown more people - 4,359 to be precise - are dying from drugs than at any time since ONS records started in 1993. Because two-thirds of the deaths were from ‘drug misuse’ - which means the victim was either addicted to the drug that killed them or that the drug is illegal in the UK - it's made people question whether current British drug policy is working.

The UK government says the way to reduce drug deaths is for individuals - the consumers, in economist speak - to just stop taking drugs, because “no illegal drug taking is safe”. But some people think that stance is itself partly responsible for drug deaths, because making drugs illegal stops the government from being able to properly regulate them. They claim that regulation, by ensuring people knew exactly what and how much of it they were taking, would prevent most overdoses.

One way to weigh up these opinions is to compare drug misuse deaths to deaths from a legal, regulated alternative: alcohol. In 2017 (the last year ONS has data for) alcohol was responsible for the deaths of 7,697 people in the UK. At first glance that makes it look like making a drug freely available only makes it more deadly, although remember this includes deaths in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which the drug data does not. Also, as many more Brits drink alcohol than do drugs each year (80 vs 8.5 percent of the population), the only fair way to compare the relative deadliness of both substances is to figure out what percentage of users die from them.

The answer to that is 0.06 percent of illegal drug users and 0.02 percent of alcohol drinkers each year. Illegal drugs, in other words, are three times more deadly than alcohol. So is the government justified in banning them? Not necessarily - research in medical journals like The Lancet found that alcohol as an actual substance is much more dangerous than other drugs, which suggests something else is pushing up death rates. Like a lack of regulation, perhaps?

Read our explainer on: government regulation.

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