Tranquillisers and methadone send drug-related deaths soaring by 30%

Drug-related deaths have soared by almost 30%, with a surge in fatalities involving tranquillisers and methadone, figures show.

Unpublished data shows there were 220 drug poisonings in 2011, compared to 173 in 2010. It is the highest yearly figure since an official database was established in 2004.

The sudden increase in fatalities is being associated with poly-drug use (more than one drug at a time), as well as a hike in deaths involving methadone, the legal substitute for heroin, and prescription tranquillisers known as benzodiazepines.

The National Drug-Related Death Index (NDRDI), compiled by the Health Research Board, reports a “substantial increase” in poisonings compared to 2010. It shows:

- Methadone was implic-ated (either on its own or with another drug) in 113 (56%) of the 220 deaths. The 113 deaths compared to 60 such cases in 2010 (a rise of 88%);

- Diazepam (the most popular benzodiazepine) was implicated in 109 (50%) deaths, compared to 54 deaths in 2010 (a rise of 102%);

- Cocaine-related deaths stabilised at 23, compared to 21 in 2010;

- Heroin-related deaths fell from 70 in 2010 to 61 in 2011.

The index comprises all deaths owing to poisonings, including both illicit drugs and legal substances such as alcohol and prescription medication. It does not include non-poisoning deaths, such as trauma (including suicides) or medical causes (such as heart problems and infections).

A report drawn up by the HRB said that, short of a deeper analysis of the reasons behind the rise in deaths, there were a number of factors. It pointed out that three quarters of all deaths involved a variety of drugs, a higher proportion that recent years.

“There was an increase in the number of deaths owing to poisoning which involved more than one drug,” it said. “Benzodiazepines, alcohol, anti-depressants, and other over-the-counter medications were among the main drugs implicated.”

It said the biggest increases were among benzodiazepine drugs, with a doubling in deaths associated with diazepam, one of the main benzo drugs.

The report said there was also a rise in methadone-related deaths. “The reason for the increase is not yet clear”, it said, particularly as there had been no change in how the data was collected.

In contrast, the number of deaths from heroin had dropped for a third consecutive year, from a peak of 115 in 2009. It said a heroin drought at the start of 2011 as well as law enforcement activity may have played some part in this.

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