Figures just published show a continuing rise in alcohol and drugs-related deaths in Northern Ireland. However, the pattern of damage revealed by the figures bears little resemblance to the picture of the 'drugs problem' commonly projected by politicians and media commentators.
Two papers released this month by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) show that, measured by mortality, alcohol is the drug causing most damage in the north, followed by a range of widely-used prescription drugs.
NISRA observes: "Drugs commonly associated with drug addiction, such as heroin and cocaine, are mentioned on fewer death certificates than drugs such as amphetamines, benzodiazepines and antidepressants."
In 2009, 283 alcohol-related deaths were registered in the north, compared with 276 the previous year.
This confirmed a steady trend which had seen an increase of around 50% in alcohol-related deaths over the previous 10 years: the 2009 figure was the highest on record.
The median age of alcohol-related deaths between 1999 and 2009 was 54, compared to 78 for all deaths: an average of 24 years of potential life wiped away in each case.
NISRA calculated the alcohol-related death rate per 100,000 people for each quintile - fifths of the population ranked in 'slices' from most deprived to least deprived.
This showed 52 deaths-per-100,000 population in the least-deprived quintile, compared to 218 in the most-deprived quintile.
The most significant trigger for alcohol-related damage and death, then, isn't moral character or individual circumstance, but the degree of deprivation experienced by the community the individual comes from.
In dealing with drugs other than alcohol, NISRA followed standard practice in treating 'drug-related deaths' and 'deaths due to drug misuse' separately.
The latter category refers to drug-related deaths that involve substances which come within the remit of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
The median age for drug-related deaths between1999 and 2009 was 40, for deaths due to drug misuse, 39.
Thus, the number of years of potential life lost were 38 in respect of drug-related deaths, 39 in relation to deaths due to drug misuse - significantly higher than in relation to alcohol. Of the drugs most commonly involved, benzodiazepines -(tranquillisers) were mentioned in 211 death certificates. Diazepam in 148 certificates, antidepressants in 201 certificates.
References to heroin or morphine fluctuated around an average of seven-a-year. No deaths were recorded over the period as having been related to the use of cannabis or ecstasy.
The figures for drug-related deaths per 100,000 population according to levels of deprivation were: least-deprived quintile, 13; next, 20; third, 21; fourth, 36; most-deprived quintile 65.
The equivalent figures for deaths due to drug misuse were: six, 10, 11, 23, 33.
"There is a clear gradient of increasing drug-related deaths and deaths due to drugs misuse with increasing deprivation . . . People living in deprived communities are around five times more likely to die from drugs-related mortality than those who live in the least deprived areas."
These reports are the most authoritative and up-to-date studies we have of the current pattern of deaths in Northern Ireland from the use and abuse of drugs, legal and illegal.
Given the fervent tone of coverage of the drugs problem in local, regional and national media and the regularity and stridency of expressions of concern from political and community spokespersons about the effects of drug use on young people in particular, it might have been anticipated the NISRA findings would have been splashed on every front page and been the focus of intense debate.
But nothing of the sort has happened. The most obvious reason for this is that the findings provide no support for the dominant assumption in political and media circles that the problem with drugs arises mainly, if not exclusively, from drugs which are illegal and that the solution lies, therefore, in tougher laws and tougher enforcement of existing laws.
This refusal to face freely-available facts is a significant aggravating element in the underlying drugs problem.
It evinces an underlying belief that those most likely to figure in the statistics for deaths involving drugs can be seen as less deserving sort of people.
Turning a blind eye to the truth is a useful and even necessary manoeuvre, too, for any who find it difficult politically to accommodate the most fundamental conclusion of all to be drawn from the NISRA reports - that in the matter of drugs, as in so much else, the most deeply-rooted source of our ills simply lies in the inequalities of our uneven society.
By Eamonn McCann
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