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ONS drug related deaths overall
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Deaths from legal highs

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There has been a marked rise in the number of deaths connected to ‘legal highs’ between 2011 and 2013, when they more than tripled from seven to 23. These trends should be interpreted with caution as they are based on very small numbers.

Ban comes into effect on 26 May 2016

A blanket ban of so-called ‘legal highs’ is due to come into effect on 26 May 2016, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 will outlaw the importation, production and supply of psychoactive substances, although alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and most medicines will be exempt.

In anticipation of this development, the Office for National Statistics published a summary of the evidence about legal high-related deaths on its new visual channel.

Concerns

‘Legal highs’ first started to become more popular on the UK drugs scene in around 2008/09, with synthetic stimulants such as benzylpiperazine (BZP) and mephedrone, and synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice, among the first to gain popularity.

There has long been concern, since then, over deaths connected to ‘legal highs’ such as mephedrone; each fatality bringing with it an outcry for something to be done to prevent further tragedies.

The government has already banned a large number of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) under theMisuse of Drugs Act 1971.

However, it has been difficult to control the use of NPS with existing legislation, and the number on the market has increased rapidly in recent years.

There were 76 deaths involving ‘legal highs’ (ie an NPS not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act on the day the person died), in England and Wales between 2004 and 2013.

There has been a marked rise in the number of deaths connected to ‘legal highs’ between 2011 and 2013, when they more than tripled from seven to 23. Five out of six legal high deaths are among men. In 2013 alone, there were 23 deaths where ‘legal highs’ were a factor. These trends should be interpreted with caution as they are based on very small numbers.

Deaths

ONS legal high deaths

Over the same period there were more than 100 times as many deaths involving heroin or morphine (7,748) and more than 20 times as many deaths involving cocaine (1,752).

The average (median) age for deaths involving a legal high is 28, which is younger than for drug misuse deaths, where the average age is 38. The youngest person to die from taking a legal high was aged 18 and between 2004 and 2013 only nine teenagers have died from this.

Little research has been carried out into the short or long-term harms of ‘legal highs’. So users are effectively acting as human guinea pigs, because they cannot be sure what substance they are actually taking, how much to take, or the effect it will have.

Around 60% of legal high deaths also involve another drug or alcohol

ONS legal high and

More than half of all legal high deaths involved multiple drugs (57% on average between 2004 and 2013), but this proportion dropped to about a third in 2013. This could be a combination of legal highs and illegal drugs or a mixture of different legal highs.

Where more than one drug is mentioned it is impossible to tell which was primarily responsible for the death.

Alcohol was involved in about 10% of legal high deaths between 2004 and 2013, though none of the 23 deaths in 2013 mentioned it.

Does banning a new psychoactive substance reduce deaths?

The ONS completes its presentation by exploring whether banning a substance helps reduce drug-related deaths by looking at the evidence on mephedrone.

Mephedrone was one of the first legal highs to catch the media’s attention. Sometimes called ‘Meow meow’ or ‘M-Cat’ by the media, it is a cathinonesubstance which was controlled as a Class B substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) on April 16, 2010, along with a number of other cathinones.

But deaths involving mephedrone did not immediately fall after it was banned. In fact they continued to rise for several years afterwards, peaking at 22 deaths in 2012, before falling to 12 deaths in 2013.

ONS mephedrone deaths

Deaths involving mephedrone spiked between 2009 and 2012, despite evidence that mephedrone use was falling (Crime Survey for England and Wales). This could be down to people taking mephedrone in combination with other more dangerous substances, or using riskier methods to take it (eg injecting instead of snorting).

It’s also possible that prolonged use of the drug caused increasing harm, with escalating doses leading to more fatal overdoses; or it is possible that a more vulnerable group of people began using mephedrone. In addition, it may be that people stockpiled mephedrone before it was banned, which could have affected patterns of use after the ban.

There may be a complex relationship between a drug’s legal status, how widely it is used in the population and the number of deaths that occur.

The ONS conclude that:

Only time will tell if the blanket ban on NPS will affect the number of deaths associated with them.

 

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