Drug-related deaths fell in Norfolk last year to their lowest level for almost a decade despite record highs nationally, driven primarily by opiates.

Office for National Statistics figures show there were 52 deaths related to drug poisoning registered in Norfolk in 2021.

That was down from 72 the previous year, and the lowest number since 2015.

The number of deaths related to drug misuse also fell to 22, down from 44 the previous year and the lowest since 2012.

Norfolk’s director for public health Dr Louise Smith said: “A reduction in drug-related deaths means fewer personal tragedies and fewer families and friends left to grieve.

Eastern Daily Press: Dr Louise Smith, director of public health for NorfolkDr Louise Smith, director of public health for Norfolk (Image: Norfolk County Council)

“There’s a lot of work being carried out across local authorities, health, the voluntary sector and in law enforcement to tackle the issues surrounding drug misuse, and increased funding being invested.

“I know all of our partners will welcome the decrease in rates of drug-related deaths in Norwich and in Norfolk as a whole over the past few years.”

Most drug deaths in the county last year occurred in Norwich with 10 due to drug poisoning and 11 related to drug misuse.

That was followed by Great Yarmouth with nine drug poisoning deaths and four due to misuse, and King’s Lynn with seven poisoning deaths and three misuse.

The latest figures mark a turnaround from the stark picture a few years ago when Norwich had among the highest number of drug-related deaths in the country with groups calling for more to be done to tackle the crisis.

Norwich had been in the top 10 out of 331 local authorities for deaths per 100,000 related to drug poisoning (17.5) in the previous three-year reporting period (2018-20).

For the most recent three-year period (2019-21) it has dropped to 38th highest (15.1 people per 100,000).

Similarly on deaths related to drug misuse per 100,000 people, Norwich has gone from 16th highest to 35th.

One innovative project that has been hailed a success is Project Adder, which brings together police, local councils and health and support services.

People testing positive for opioids and crack cocaine in police custody are offered additional support through treatment.

It helped more than 170 people into treatment in its first 12 months.

Eastern Daily Press: Project Adder manager Nicole Chilvers.Project Adder manager Nicole Chilvers. (Image: Archant)

“The partnership is really helping to identify who the vulnerable people are and get support to them when they need it, where previously they may have been treated as criminals whereas now they are being treated as victims and actually being given support," said project manager Nicole Chilvers.

Dr Smith added: “Every drug-related death is one too many, and we know that the full impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are yet to become fully apparent in the figures: this is no time to become complacent.

“There’s still a lot to do, and we’ll continue working with our partners, including through Project Adder, to tackle drug-related deaths in Norwich and in Norfolk.”

Eastern Daily Press: Project Adder aims to help vulnerable users whilst increasing the pressure on higher level drug gangs.Project Adder aims to help vulnerable users whilst increasing the pressure on higher level drug gangs. (Image: Getty Images)

Despite the falling numbers locally, drug deaths have reached record levels elsewhere across the UK with charities criticising the government over a lack of action with experts calling the latest figures an “utter disgrace”.

In total there were 4,859 deaths related to drug poisoning registered in 2021, the ninth consecutive annual rise and the highest number since records began more than a quarter of a century ago in 1993.

Blackpool, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool were among the places to see most deaths.

The ONS said the overall rising trend over the past decade has been driven primarily by deaths involving opiates, but also those involving other substances such as cocaine.

New trends involving taking specific drugs, such as benzodiazepines, alongside heroin and morphine may increase the overdose risk.

Mike Trace, chief executive of the Forward Trust, said the rise in drug-related deaths comes amid people mixing substances, known as "poly drug use".

He said: "I think the pandemic has made things worse. Most deaths are what we call deaths of despair - people who are lonely, they're using drugs in situations where they don't have support or other people to protect them.

“We need to provide much better support and inclusion to people who are living very isolated, marginalised lives."