Deaths linked to drug use reached a new high in 2017, with increases in cocaine fatalities and suicides contributing to the rise.
New figures show the extent to which prescription drugs, particularly benzodiazepines (tranquillisers), and alcohol, continue to dominate poisoning, or overdose, deaths.
The National Drug-Related Deaths Index shows that “cocktails of drugs” – involving, on average, four substances – are implicated in three in five poisoning deaths.
The index, published by the Health Research Board, shows:
“More than one person died from overdose each day in 2017,” said Ena Lynn, research officer at the HRB. “They would typically have been male, aged in their 30s or 40s and taking a mixture of drugs, many of which are legal, such as methadone, alcohol or benzodiazepines.”
Prescription drugs were involved in 253 (two in every three) poisoning deaths, with benzodiazepines the most common group (involved in 139 deaths).
The biggest increase in the 'benzo' group was Alprazolam, up 34%, from 47 deaths in 2016 to 63 deaths in 2017.
Deaths involving Diazepam (another benzo) were very high (90), though down on 2016 (99). Methadone, the legal heroin substitute, was implicated in 95 deaths (down from 105).
Alcohol was involved in 125 poisoning deaths or one third of all such fatalities, including 61 deaths where it was the only drug involved.
The report showed an increase in deaths from illegal drugs, the biggest rise involving cocaine, up from 42 in 2016 to 53 in 2017 (+26%). This figure has risen consistently since 2010, when it stood at 21, and is back towards levels in 2009 (53).
Ms Lynn said cocaine was often mixed with other drugs, such as methadone, alcohol and benzos.
Given the sharp increase we have seen in the demand for treatment for cocaine in recent years, we hope that these figures highlight the risks associated with cocaine use
Deaths involving heroin rose slightly (from 74 in 2016 to 77 in 2017), while there were seven deaths from fentanyl (a potent synthetic opiate), the same number as in the last two years.
There was also a significant rise, albeit from a low base, in MDMA (ecstasy), up 75%, from eight in 2016 to 14 in 2017.
Non-poisoning deaths are fatalities among people with a history of drug dependency or problematic use. The figures show a continuing rise in these deaths, with 196 of the 410 fatalities due to trauma and 214 due to medical causes.
Among trauma deaths, 114 were from hangings, compared to 98 in 2016 and just over 40 back in 2008. The increase in 2017 was “driven mainly” by a 56% increase in hangings among women, from 16 in 2016 to 25 in 2017.
Eight out of ten hangings involved men and six out of ten of all hangings involved people with a history or mental health problems. Cannabis followed by cocaine were the most common drugs used by those involved in death by hanging.
Commenting on the report, Tony Duffin, CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project said: “Each one of those 786 deaths is a person – someone’s child, someone’s son, daughter or friend.
“Drug related deaths are not just an individual tragedy, but a tragedy for families and broader communities.”
He said the average age of those deaths was just 43.
“In modern societies we don’t expect people to die at 43. We know that people can and do recover from substance use issues in their lives, and we need to make sure that our policies increasingly support that happening,” he said.
In relation to deaths among those injecting drugs, the report found there were 33 such fatalities. Mr Duffin said 60% of these people were alone and 40% were in Dublin city and argued that these figures underscored the need for supervised injecting facilities.
“We’ve had legislation in place since 2017 to open a pilot supervised injecting facility in Dublin city centre,” he said. “Such services ensure that people do not have to inject alone, as well as being supported to access other services that could help.
“As has been well documented in the media, the proposed development of a facility at Merchant’s Quay Ireland is currently tied up in the planning appeals process and we very much hope that the appeal will be successful and the development can proceed.”