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Drug Addiction in the UK – The Scope of the Problem

It’s easy enough to skim through shocking BBC headlines about drug overdoses and other concerning drug-related issues across the United Kingdom. And while news headlines offer a dramatic yet very real glimpse at the drug crisis in the UK, what is the actual scope of this problem? What is the deeper story behind addiction in the UK? How bad has addiction in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland become, and what are some measures by which this problem might be resolved?

Statistics – Fact-Based Data on the Extent of Drug Addiction in the UK (England and Wales)

According to an October 2020 study published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal), drug-related deaths are the highest they’ve been since record-keeping began. Nearly 4,400 drug-related deaths were registered in England and Wales in 2019, the highest number since the Office for National Statistics began recording such deaths in 1993.

Drug deaths in the UK increased more than 52% in the past ten years, with each year bringing more deaths than the last. The high number of drug-related deaths in the UK is a direct result of increasing drug use among citizens. For example, in England and Wales alone, about one in 11 adults ages 16 to 59 took drugs in 2019. That number represents about 9.4% of the population of England and Wales, approximately 3.2 million people. It also represents an increase in drug users from 2010, when only about 8.6% of the adult population of England and Wales experimented with drugs.

Drug use is a serious issue for young adults in England and Wales, with one in five adults ages 16 to 24 experimenting with drugs (compared to one out of 11 adults in the 16 to 59 age bracket).

Source: UK Office For National Statistics

Scotland – The Overdose Capital of Europe

The drug crisis has surged in Scotland and follows a similar growth trend as what’s been seen in England and Wales. In fact, the drug crisis is arguably much worse in Scotland than it is for its neighbouring countries to the south.

According to a December 2020 report from the National Records of Scotland, the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland increased by 6% from 2018 to 2019, with 1,264 people dying from drug overdoses in 2019. That’s the highest number to die from drug overdoses in Scotland since record-keeping began in 1996.

The death toll from drug overdoses in 2019 indicates the sixth straight year in a row where drug-related deaths surged in Scotland. The drug-related deaths for 2019 were more than double the death toll in 2014, indicating a steady and considerable surge in fatalities over the past five years.

According to a BBC report on the drug crisis in Scotland, the country has the highest drug-related death toll per capita of any country in Europe.

Northern Ireland – Highest Drug Use Statistics Yet

The scope of drug abuse in Northern Ireland has followed a similar pattern as Scotland, England, and Wales. There were 191 drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland in 2019, the highest number recorded since the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency began recording such deaths in 1997. The demographic most likely to die from drugs in Northern Ireland were men between the ages of 25 and 44.

Much like in Scotland, the death toll from drug use in Northern Ireland has more than doubled in recent years. Eighty-four people died from drugs in Northern Ireland in 2009, compared to 191 deaths in 2019.

Another factor to consider regarding the scope of drug abuse in Northern Ireland is that the vast majority of addicts in this region who die from drug use die from multiple drugs at once, a behavioural pattern called “Poly-drug Use.” That factor complicates matters in Northern Ireland because it is more challenging to treat someone who is addicted to multiple drugs at once than it is to treat someone who is misusing just one drug.

Addiction Treatment – The Importance of Helping UK Residents Overcome Drug Abuse

Drug overdose deaths are just one metric by which a country’s drug problem is measured. For example, drug-related hospital admissions are also rising in the UK, with over 7,000 drug-related behavioural admissions reported in England and Wales in 2019. Another 16,994 admissions were reported for emergency poisonings as a direct result of drug misuse.

There is a serious danger and a very real risk that UK residents take upon themselves when they experiment with drugs. Drugs have a mind-altering effect on those who use them, causing them to think, feel, act, and react in a different and unusual way from how they would function were they not under the influence of substances. Furthermore, the more one uses drugs, the more likely he or she is to develop an addiction to such drugs, a crippling behavioural, mental, and emotional crisis that requires professional help to break away from.

It is crucial for those who are already addicted to drugs in the UK that they seek help from qualified drug and alcohol treatment centres. Such programs will help them overcome the underlying issues and personal struggles that caused them to seek out drugs in the first place.

Prevention and Education - Helping People Before They Become Addicted

The subject of prevention and education is just as important as treatment for drug addiction. When people, especially young people, learn about the harms, risks, and dangers present in drug use before they ever experiment with drugs, they are much less likely to use drugs in the future. They know the risks involved, and they're less likely to respond to peer pressure from their friends, fellow students, or coworkers.

In many ways, prevention and education is the best treatment for drug addiction, because educating people about drugs helps them understand why they should never use drugs. And it’s much more manageable to help someone understand why they shouldn’t use drugs than it is to help someone get off of drugs after they are already hooked.



by Ren Brabenec

After several years of valuable experience as an employee at an addiction treatment center, Ren now works as a drug and alcohol research specialist and writer. He’s written over 6 million words on drugs, alcohol, addiction, and how substance abuse affects young people, families, and our society. Ren is focused on using his skills and knowledge as an author and addiction counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. You can connect with Ren on LinkedIn.

Posted on Tuesday 30th March 2021

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