Scale of drug misuse in England

The increase in drug misuse in the UK is not something that should be ignored. The NHS is naturally concerned about the impact on their resources, but of far greater concern is the impact drug misuse has on affected individuals, their families and their friends.

The NHS produce annual statistics to show the extent of the medical experience in terms of hospital admissions relating to drug misuse. However, due to the pathological nature of the disease of addiction in terms of associated treatment avoidance, plus the concerns over confidentiality due to legalities and work implications, it is likely that health services are only aware of a small part of the full extent of this massive issue.

Drug misuse hospital admissions England and Wales

Drug misuse hospital admissions UK


2012/13 2015/16 2018/19
Admissions with a primary diagnosis of drug related mental and behavioural disorders 6,549 8,149 7,376
Admissions with a primary or secondary diagnosis of drug related mental and behavioural disorders 61,142 74,801 96,705
Admissions with a primary diagnosis of poisoning by drug misuse 15,580 17,658 18,053


The primary diagnosis is the first of up to 20 diagnosis fields in the Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) dataset and provides the main reason why the patient was in hospital.

Secondary diagnosis is a broader measure as does not necessarily indicate a drug related mental and behavioural disorder as a contributing factor for the admission, but may instead mean that it was relevant to a patient’s episode of care.

Poisoning includes both intentional and unintentional poisoning involving a substance listed as being controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. 

Key points:

  • 9.4% of adults have taken an illicit drug in the past year
  • 20.3% of young adults (16-24) have taken an illicit drug in the past year
  • Over 18,000 admissions for drug misuse poisonings and nearly 3,000 deaths
  • Cannabinoids have overtaken opioids as primary diagnosis, although disorders due to multiple drug use and use of other psychoactive substances is the single biggest category
  • By Local Authority Lancashire, Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent had the highest number of admissions
  • Opioids including codeine and morphine were the cause of most poisonings
  • Lancashire, Birmingham, Kent and Essex had the highest number of poisonings by drug misuse
  • St Georges Hospital Toxicologist, Dr John Ramsay reported previously that there are 312 products in the UK that contain codeine. Codeine is very similar to heroin and morphine in structure

The full National Statistics Publication report is available via Drug misuse England and Wales .

In his article, 'I can't stop taking prescription painkillers', Consultant Psychiatrist, Professor Oscar D'Agnone explains some of the problems that medical professionals are facing. He says, "As addiction specialists we are approached by the often braver (or defeated) patients who all start the process [of recovery from addiction] by asking us the same sorts of questions, namely, are you confidential? and, Will you be telling my GP?"

Prof D'Agnone goes on to say, "Although we see thousands of such patients with a genuine desire to face up to the prospect of recovery from prescription opiate drug dependency, due to the psychopathology these patients are only a small fraction of the total number of people currently suffering and dying".

Anyone seeking fully confidential and expert advice can contact Chapter One Recovery who specialise in medical detox and treating addiction to alcohol, cocaine, opiates and prescription medicines.

The basic unit of all living organisms. Full medical glossary
A narcotic drug extracted from coca leaves. Full medical glossary
The process of determining which condition a patient may have. Full medical glossary
An organ with the ability to make and secrete certain fluids. Full medical glossary
Any drug derived from or chemically similar to opium. Full medical glossary
A substance poisonous to the body. Full medical glossary