Press Release: 2023 marks the deadliest year yet. A looming public health emergency desperately requires action.


Drug related deaths continue to rise with no Government effort to save lives. A looming public health emergency desperately requires action.

The Office for National Statistics’ data (released today) highlights once again the failure of the Government to act in any meaningful way to prevent death and save lives.

There were 4,907 drug-related deaths registered in 2022 in England and Wales, an increase from the 4,859 deaths registered in 2021 – the highest on record once again. Of these deaths 3,127 were related to ‘drug misuse’ in that they involved drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The circumstances for people using drugs is only set to get worse in 2024, as the consequences of the suppression of Afghan opium production is felt across European drug markets. Synthetic opioids, namely nitazenes which can be as sting or stronger than fentanyl, are increasingly likely to contaminate the heroin supply and that of other substances, as we have seen with benzodiazepines (like Xanax and Valium).

This trend will not change unless the UK takes immediate action to decriminalise people who use drugs, reduce barriers for people looking for treatment, and begin to fund public health interventions rather than simply arresting people.

Release’s Executive Director, Niamh Eastwood, says:

“For the last 11 years drug related deaths have continued to rise year on year, every death is someone’s loved one.

Drug policy in the UK is simply not fit for purpose. Over the last decade, we have spent billions on law enforcement whilst at the same time the Government defunded treatment and harm reduction programmes; recent increased funding is welcomed, but honestly it is too little too late.

The UK Government has refused, and continues to refuse, to support life saving measures such as overdose prevention centres, or to scale up drug checking so we know what is in the ever increasing toxic drugs supply. It continues to criminalise people who use drugs, deterring them from seeking the support they need. Countries in Europe that have ended criminal sanctions for drug possession offences have much lower rates of death than the UK.

The figures this year are once again record breaking, and with the arrival of synthetic opioids in the drug supply chain this crisis is set to become catastrophic. This is a public health emergency and we need action now or more needless and preventable deaths will occur.”



Note to the editor: 

Release is the UK centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws, providing free and confidential specialist services to professionals, the public, and people who use drugs. Release believes in a just and fair society where drug policies should reduce the harms associated with drugs, and where those who use drugs are treated based on principles of human rights, dignity and equality.