Drug death figures for 2021 released by the Office for National Statistics last week make for grim reading. An all-time high of 4,859 deaths related to drug poisoning were recorded last year in England and Wales, a 6.2% increase on the previous record numbers recorded in 2020 and the ninth consecutive rise in a row.
Drug deaths have almost doubled since the Conservative government took office in 2010, with treatment for funding cut by up to 40% in some areas and the number of people accessing treatment services vastly reduced due to both a lack of capacity, and a lack of will to address the problem from a government more concerned with headlines than saving lives. These tragic figures starkly illustrate the extent of the emergency that we now face, the crucial role that inequality plays in problematic substance use and the urgent need for reform to our counterproductive drug laws.
With a general election likely within the next two years and an upcoming party conference, which will be crucial in terms of deciding the policy platform of the next manifesto, these drug death figures should serve as a clear warning that Labour needs a day-one plan to stop the deaths and reverse the damage done by the 12 years of Tory austerity, stigma and indifference.
Inequality lies at the heart of the drug death epidemic. We are the most unequal country in Europe, including staggering levels of regional inequality, and this is reflected in the figures. For the ninth consecutive year, the region with the most registered drug deaths was the North East, which also happens to be the region with the most ‘left behind’ areas in England. Labour’s alternative to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda must include provision to ‘level down’ drug deaths.
The socio-economic roots of these deaths mean that we cannot simply arrest our way out of the problem. A Labour government must decisively shift the way that we address the drug death epidemic – alongside drug use more widely – seeing it as an issue best dealt with in health and educational contexts, not a criminal justice one.
The harms that drugs are causing to individuals and society, and the costs associated with them, are now a public health emergency and should be treated as such. The minister responsible for drugs in a Labour government should sit within the Department for Health and Social Care, not the Home Office, as an institutional symbol of the change in approach that is desperately needed.
What these new figures also make clear is that we can’t legislate our way out of the problem either. 2021 saw another strong surge in the numbers of people dying as a result of using new psychoactive substances – a class of drugs that the Novel Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 attempted to outlaw. As with all prohibitionist legislation, however, the Act simply led to a diversification of the substances available in order to flout the imposed ban, many of which are even more dangerous and are now causing the rising deaths from NPSs seen in the latest data.
Luckily, Labour has a number of advocates across the country leading the way on drug policy reform. London mayor Sadiq Khan has established a commission to examine our laws relating to cannabis, whilst Labour MSP Paul Sweeney is spearheading efforts in the Scottish parliament to introduce overdose prevention centres to deal with Scotland’s long-standing drug death crisis, where death rates are significantly higher than in England and Wales.
Supporting an explicitly public health-based approach to drug use and moving away from a punishment-based model should be the guiding principle for Labour’s future drug policy. This would include supporting the expansion of harm reduction measures such as drug testing facilities (something the government is already doing), investing in treatment and recovery services and supporting the proliferation of police schemes that divert people who are found in personal possession of drugs away from the criminal justice system and the revolving door of prison.
A drug policy agenda based on ensuring that people who use drugs are afforded the security, prosperity and respect that Keir Starmer centres as Labour’s values is a necessary condition for turning the tide in the fight against drug deaths. A Labour government has a duty to support the most vulnerable people in society – that includes people who use drugs.
Evidence and compassion must be the basis of drug policy-making, not focus groups. Prohibition and criminalisation have failed, and at huge human and financial cost. The Tories authoritarian turn on drugs, along with the ever-increasing severity of the situation demands a clear plan of transformative action from Labour, and a bold rhetorical case accompanying it that doesn’t apologise for not winning a ‘war on drugs’ but makes the case for ending it.