legal-highsThe number of people dying from the use of ‘legal highs’ in England and Wales has almost doubled in the last year alone according to new figures.

Fears over the effects and the availability of legal highs in the UK are growing as more and more people are gaining access to these chemicals through both shops on the high street and internet vendors. There has been a steep increase in the number of people ordering the drugs online to be sent directly to their home, a deeply worrying trend.

The number of legal-high related deaths last year was recorded at 52 people, a rise from 29 people killed from exposure and use of the same chemicals in 2011. The deaths resulted from the use of substances such as Spice and the now banned mephedrone. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) also confirmed a steep increase in deaths resulting from taking the painkiller Tramadol, a prescription painkiller, with 175 casualties being linked to the drug, an increase of nearly 100 deaths in under a year.

However, despite the increase in legal-high related deaths the overall number of drug related deaths has declined. The annual figures on drug-related deaths show a continuing long-term decline in the total number of drug-related deaths, down from 1,605 in 2011 to 1,496 in 2012. This is a significant fall from a peak of 1,941 in 2008.

Legal high use growing.

The official statisticians say that both heroin and morphine remain the most common cause of drug-related deaths, accounting for 579 in 2012. This figure demonstrated the long-term decline in deaths linked to the drugs that have almost halved since peaking at 981 in 2001.

The ONS said the continuing fall in heroin deaths could be attributed to a combination of factors. It includes the persistent effects of the “heroin drought” in Britain in 2010-11, which led to continuing shortages in some areas lasting well into this year. It also cites the dramatic fall in purity of street heroin, from 46% in 2009 to 15%-20% in 2012-13 resulting in fewer overdoses.

The public health authorities also suggest treatment programmes have helped to shrink the pool of heroin and crack addicts in England from 64,288 in 2005-06 to 47,210 in 2011-12, but the ONS says evidence from the official crime figures shows there has been little variation in heroin use in recent years.

The ONS says that although the number of deaths involving legal highs remains low compared with heroin deaths, it is going up. They suggest that these new psychoactive “designer drugs”, which are synthesised to imitate the effects of more traditional substances and are sold online, are rapidly becoming a significant part of the problem.

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