Press Release

For immediate release

14th October 2020


Government must take responsibility for huge rise in cocaine deaths


The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has released the latest drug-related death statistics for England and Wales [1]. They show that overall illegal drug-related deaths remain at record levels, with 2,883 deaths due to overdose in 2019. 


At a glance:

  • At 50.4 deaths per million of the population, England and Wales’ drug death rate remains at more than double the European average (22 per million) and over 12 times that of Portugal
  • 708 cocaine deaths is a new record, up 5-fold between 2012-19
  • 78 MDMA deaths, remain high but down from 92 last year (the highest ever)
  • 2,160 deaths from opiates (highest level was last year – 2,208)
  • 399 Benzodiazepine deaths (no significant change on previous years)



There is an enormous rise in cocaine-related deaths: up by 7.7% among men and 26.5% among women, despite continuing efforts by the Government to clamp down on the illegal trade. In recent years, cocaine has become cheaper, stronger and more accessible [2]. At the same time funding for drug treatment has been cut by an average of 27% across England, with the deepest cuts in areas with the most drug-related deaths [3]. Cuts across the board hit older people particularly hard [4]. 


The UK currently has, by far, the highest number of drug-related deaths in Europe, accounting for over 35% of all EU drug related deaths, and the highest levels of cocaine use [5]. The policy of seizures, arrest and criminalisation has failed to reduce the harm.


Portugal, which decriminalised the possession of drugs in 2001, saw just 51 drug-related deaths in 2017 – a rate of 4 per million. The rate in England and Wales in 2019 was over 12 times that, at 50.4 people per million.


Transform Drug Policy Foundation is calling for Government to change direction, and look at alternatives. To reduce heroin related deaths, which make up around half of the overall number, we need better funding for treatment. We also need local areas to be allowed to innovate by opening up overdose prevention centres (also called Safer Drug Consumption Rooms). Currently, the Home Office is preventing this from happening – leading to ‘pop up’ centres being opened in Scotland.


Next week Transform publishes a groundbreaking book that sets out how legal regulation of drugs, including cocaine, can be done in a practical, responsible way. 


James Nicholls, Chief Executive Officer of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said


Every one of these deaths was a preventable tragedy that cost someone their brother, sister, parent or friend, leaving thousands of families grieving. After seven years of record deaths, the Government must focus on keeping people alive. Current policy is not protecting people or our communities, and is actively blocking measures we know can reduce deaths. Countries that have taken public health approaches to drugs, like Portugal, have seen plummeting death rates. We need fully funded treatment services, more support for heroin prescribing, and for local areas to be allowed to establish overdose prevention centres if we want to reduce these tragedies.


“We need to focus on supporting vulnerable people, not criminalising and stigmatising them. The law as it prevents effective support, while leaving the market in the hands of people with no concern for welfare. To get drugs under control, and reduce deaths, we need to legalise and regulate all drugs properly: ensuring safer supply and providing effective support, while taking the market away from organised crime. The status quo is not working, and we all need to look at the alternatives.”


Ray Lakeman, campaigner with Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control, said


“I lost my two sons on the same night after they took ecstasy of unknown purity and strength. It’s time to accept drug use happens and find ways to make it safer. Those of us in the Anyone’s Child campaign know about those measures – including legally regulating drugs. Why does the government ignore the evidence? Behind each figure in these latest statistics was a real person, a person who once had hopes and dreams – as did my two sons who were killed by illegal ecstasy – but they are treated as if their lives were just collateral damage in the government’s drug war. I am so sad for all the families who are left in grief.”



Dr James Nicholls, CEO 0798 554 8405

Jane Slater, Deputy CEO/Anyone’s Child Programme, 0785 227 2220 

Ben Campbell, Communications Officer, 0117 325 0295 


Notes for editors

Transform Drug Policy Foundation iTransform Drug Policy Foundation is a charity working to promote public health, social justice and human rights through drug policy reform. We believe the legal regulation of drugs is essential to achieving these goals.

s an independent charity that works to reduce drug-related harms through evidence-based reforms to policy and practice. It supports the legal regulation of drugs, and campaigns for policies that promote health and social justice.


Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control is a campaign of Transform which works with families directly harmed by drug policy. 


Transform’s latest publication How to regulate stimulants: a practical guide sets out the first detailed, book-length plan for the responsible regulation of cocaine, MDMA and stimulants. It is published on the 20th October. Advanced press copies are available. A launch webinar with leading global thinkers will take place on 22nd October at 20:00 GMT.




  2. Home Office and Public Health England (2019). ‘Increase in crack cocaine use inquiry – summary of findings.’ 
  3. The Well Communities (2019). ‘White paper – towards sustainable drug treatment services.’
  4. 51 people died drug-related deaths in Portugal (population 10.31 million) in 2017, only 13 of them were under 40. Statistics Portugal (2018). ‘Deaths related with drugs consumption by place of residence and Age group.’ The European Monitoring Centre n Drugs and Drug Addiction says Portugal has a drug-related death rate of 4 people per million 
  5. EMCDDA annual report 2020 
  6. ‘How to Regulate Stimulants: A practical guide’, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, to be published 20th October 2020 – advance copies available via Ben Campbell (see contacts)