Legal drugs cause 75% of poisoning deaths

Legal drugs, including prescription medication and alcohol, account for three out of four of all deaths directly due to the effects of drugs.

Tranquillisers known as benzodiazepines, methadone and anti-depressant medication, along with alcohol, accounted for 262 of the 350 deaths from poisoning in 2012.

Illegal drugs were implicated in the remaining 87 deaths, or just a quarter of the overall total, according to official figures.

But the National Drug-Related Deaths Index for 2012, published by the Health Research Board, shows that more than half of all deaths from drugs are due to the effects of multiple substances taken at the same time.

Polydrug use has been a growing problem over the last decade, with the number of deaths increasing by 60%: from 118 in 2004 to 189 in 2012.

HRB researcher Ena Lynn said polydrug deaths often included a combination of benzodiazepines, methadone and alcohol.

“There has been an enormous growth in polydrug deaths,” said Joan Byrne of Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign. “It’s really getting out of hand. People are coming into local groups not with an addiction to one drug, but to two or three.”

In relation to prescription drugs, the index found:

  • Benzodiazepines were implicated in 123 deaths (35% of poisonings).
  • Anti-depressants were implicated in 77 deaths (22%).
  • Other prescription drugs, such as hypnotics and anti-psychotic drugs, were implicated in 74 deaths (21%).
  • The index showed that alcohol was involved in the greatest number of deaths, at 126, or 40% of the total number of poisonings. Of these, 76 deaths involved alcohol alone.

There were 86 deaths involving methadone, the second highest number of deaths since 2004, but a drop from a high of 118 in 2011.

Ms Lynn said drug deaths were a “national problem” and pointed out that 54% of fatalities occurred outside Dublin city and county.

Dr Eamon Keenan, consultant psychiatrist in substance misuse, said this indicated more services were needed nationally.

In the regional breakdown:

  • South-Eastern Regional Drug Task Force had 42 poisoning deaths in 2012, the highest since 2004
  • North Eastern RDTF had 30 deaths, down sharply on 2011 (42), but higher than all the other years.
  • Southern RDTF had 27 deaths, down significantly on 2011 (37), but higher than five of the other seven years.
  • Cork Local DTF had 23 deaths, up sharply on 2011 (10) and the highest since 2007.
  • The index shows there were 283 non-poisoning deaths in 2012, the highest on record, up from 258 in 2011.

This involved 138 trauma deaths, including hangings, drownings and shootings, as well as 143 medical deaths, such as cardiac and liver deaths due to drug and alcohol use.

Half of all trauma deaths involved people aged 29 or under, including 28 aged 25-29, 17 aged 20-24 and 13 aged 15-19.

The number of people dying from hanging has risen consistently, from 30 in 2004, to 40 in 2007, to 53 in 2010 and to 72 in 2012.

The number of drownings also reached a peak in 2012, at 20, compared to 16 in 2004 and nine in 2011.

In relation to medical deaths, the number of cardiac and liver deaths have increased since 2010. Ms Lynn said the liver deaths involve drug addicts who also abuse alcohol.

Ms Byrne said four times as many people died from drugs in 2012 (633) as died from road crashes in 2012 (162). “The road campaigns have been really successful, but we have a National Drugs Strategy that has run up a tunnel and hit a brick wall,” she said.

“It’s obvious Minister for Health Leo Varadkar does not have the time to drive this. We call on the Government to immediately appoint a junior minister who can provide this leadership in tackling the drugs crisis.”

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