Home News Government drug death figures reveal record high in Bristol

Government drug death figures reveal record high in Bristol


Drug deaths have risen to a record high in Bristol, new figures reveal.

The Government’s local statistics for drug deaths are given as a rolling three-year total — and in Bristol, there were 147 drug poisoning deaths recorded between 2018 and 2020.

That is the highest number seen since between 2001 and 2003, when local figures began. In last year’s figures, which spanned 2017 to 2019, the city had 131 drug deaths.

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The figures analysed by Reach Data Unit cover all drug poisoning deaths, which might involve accidents from non-controlled drugs and prescription medicines.

Bristol’s latest figure of 147 includes 116 deaths from drug misuse — again, a record high for the city.

Across England and Wales, there were 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning in 2020 – up from 4,393 in the previous year, and the highest number since at least 1993.

The news comes after 20 people — one of whom died — were hospitalised in Bristol having taken dangerous “Blue Tesla” pills during the weekend of July 23 to 25.

The latest Government figures reveal 1,452 Bristol drug offences were recorded in 2020/21 — the equivalent of four a day, and up from 1,371 the year before.

The number of offences was particularly high between March and the end of May last year, during the first national lockdown — 39 per cent higher than the same period the year before.

While numbers have since dipped, overall drug crime remains at a higher level than previous years. Most other types of crime dropped significantly at the start of the pandemic and have remained lower than usual over the last year.

A Criminal Justice Inspectorates report found that some forces attributed the rise in recorded drug offences to officers having more time to find offenders, rather than any increase in criminal activity. With so few cars on the roads, drug offenders were less able to hide in plain sight.

‘Exploitation of vulnerable young people’

National law firm Stephenson’s saw an 820 per cent increase in people seeking legal support for intent to supply offences between April and December 2020.

Colin Rawson, of the criminal offence department at Stephenson’s, said: “The significant jump in intent to supply offences underlines the increase in proactive police activity around drugs this year, but also suggests how organised crime groups and private individuals have turned to the supply of drugs in order to supplement income or offset lost earnings during a year of lockdowns and restrictions.

“One particular pattern we’ve seen is the continued exploitation of vulnerable young people in order to transport drugs between county lines. At a time when many young people are finding themselves out of work, the promise of easy money often lures them into this type of crime, often without fully understanding the consequences.

“This is mirrored in the rise of people growing and selling drugs like cannabis as an alternative revenue stream during lockdown. Often it’s their circumstances which has led them to that point.”

The rise in drug offences in Bristol has been driven by possession of cannabis, with 875 of these crimes in 2020/21, up from 747 last year.

There were also 330 offences of trafficking in controlled drugs, down slightly from 331, along with 237 offences of possession of other controlled substances, down from 279.

And 10 other drug offences were recorded, which might include the production of illegal drugs or allowing a premises to be used for supply or production.

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‘Public health emergency’

Clare Taylor, director of operations at the Turning Point drug misuse charity, said: “The increase in drug related deaths is a public health emergency and should be responded to as such.

“Covid-19 has impacted on the nation’s mental health, but the effect of isolation, financial insecurity and fear has hit many of those who were already vulnerable, including people with a history of drug or alcohol problems and some people have not received the support that they needed.

“Every drug or alcohol related death is preventable, and our thoughts are with anyone who has lost someone this way.”

Avon and Somerset Police say they are committed to “reducing the harm caused by drug crime in our communities”.

A batch of blue 'Tesla' pills, from a drugs seizure in Manchester in 2019. Motion nightclub in Bristol has warned about a new batch of dangerous blue Tesla pills, and health chiefs said one person died and 20 were hospitalised by 'dangerously strong' recreational drugs last weekend, July 23-25.
A batch of blue ‘Tesla’ pills, from a drugs seizure in Manchester in 2019. Motion nightclub in Bristol has warned about a new batch of dangerous blue Tesla pills, and health chiefs said one person died and 20 were hospitalised by ‘dangerously strong’ recreational drugs last weekend, July 23-25.

A spokeswoman for the force said: “Our approach to drug offences involves working closely with partner agencies such as Bristol City Council, addiction support providers and community mentors.

“We want to help to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to support services while at the same time targeting those responsible for supplying illegal drugs and exploiting vulnerable people.

“We’ve recently been given £1.5million over two years to help reduce drugs harm in Bristol, as part of a new Home Office project which takes a holistic approach to tackling drugs misuse and its associated crime.

“This is in addition to a £3.4million fund being managed by Bristol City Council under Project Adder, which stands for Addiction, Diversion, Disruption, Enforcement and Recovery, and which aims to reduce drug-related crime, deaths and use.”

The force has commissioned the St Giles Trust to build a network of community mentors supporting young people to prevent them being exploited by criminal gangs.

‘Break the cycle of misery’

Bristol Commander Superintendent Mark Runacres said: “We need to balance enforcement with diversion and education to make lasting change.

“We’ll improve pathways to support and grow existing pathways to support for the most entrenched and problematic drugs users in the city. This is an opportunity to break the cycle of misery that all too often goes hand in hand with drugs misuse and dealing.”

Coronavirus has also disrupted addiction services, which had already seen significant cuts over the last 10 years due to austerity.

Dr Emily Finch, vice-chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “The highest-ever recorded number of people dying through drug-related deaths in England and Wales should serve as a wake-up call to the Government that their approach to addiction services is putting people’s lives at risk.

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“The 28 per cent cut in spending in today’s prices on adult drug misuse services in England since 2013/14 has starved services of the money needed to treat people living with this potentially life-ending illness.

“Shortages in skilled professional staff and the disconnection between health and addiction services means patients living with multiple health needs cannot be properly treated.

“National decision makers need to wake up to the fact that swingeing 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.”

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