Drug use soars to record high

Late night revellers are “out of it” on drugs in Chelmsford at levels not seen for “many years”, a drug charity has said amid figures showing drug crimes and deaths soaring to a record high.

Charities have said the increase in drug related deaths is a public health emergency and should be responded to as such.

Essex Police said an increase in arrests “highlights the impact our work is having on dismantling drugs gangs and bringing criminals to justice”.

The force said just last month four men were charged and officers seized a firearm, thousands of pounds in cash, and cocaine and cannabis with a street value of £200,000.

According to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures, there were 7,261 drug offences recorded by Essex police in 2020/21 – the equivalent of 20 a day.

That’s up from 6,110 similar crimes the year before, and is the highest number recorded since at least 2002/03, when these figures began.

The number of offences was particularly high between March and the end of May last year, during the first national lockdown – at 66 per cent higher than the same period the year before.

While numbers have since dipped, drug crime remains at a much higher level than previous years.

In the first six months of this year, Essex Police Operation Raptor – the Essex Police response to the criminality created by Urban Street gangs – was responsible for 104 warrants, 272 arrests and the seizure of £207,517 in cash and 27 weapons.

In the first half of the year, it also secured the closure of 11 county lines and seen the ringleaders of an organised crime group in Harlow sentenced to a combined 40 years in prison.

Detective Superintendent Rob Kirby, head of the serious violence unit at Essex Police, said: “Just last month four men were charged following warrants in Basildon led by our Disruptor team, where a firearm, a four-figure sum of cash, and cocaine and cannabis with a street value of £200,000 were seized.

“We also continue to work with our partners in the NHS, local authorities, and others to find ways to support people who are victims of cuckooing and grooming by drug dealers, helping them to get them out of situations that put them in danger and away from those exploiting them.

“As well as tackling the supply of drugs, we are also working with partner agencies to help reduce the demand for illegal drugs, whether that’s in signposting people to treatment services or working with the courts and probation service to make sure the right orders and restrictions are put in place to support recovery.”

In Essex, there were 346 drug poisoning deaths recorded in the three-year rolling period between 2018 and 2020.

That was up from 307 deaths between 2017 and 2019 – and was the highest number seen since between 2001 and 2003, when local figures began.

While the figure covers all drug poisoning deaths, which might involve accidents from non-controlled drugs and prescription medicines, they include 191 deaths related to drug misuse – which are specifically caused by drug abuse or addiction.

Worryingly Essex Police has evidence that one of the county lines in Chelmsford may be mixing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, into heroin batches.

This is especially risky when people taking drugs don’t realize they might contain fentanyl as a cheap but dangerous additive.

Leading Essex drug and alcohol support service Open Road has seen a worrying trend upwards with several young people being presented at the doors of its Chelmsford SOS bus very unwell after taking, or having their drinks spiked with, suspected illegal drugs.

Steve Wood from Open Road was at the SOS bus last weekend.

He said: “Each case presented to us as very intoxicated, with no signs of drug use until they had been with us for around 15 minutes. After this time, they quickly went downhill, showing little signs of consciousness, and were cared for by medics. Some foamed at the mouth, became very uncoordinated and were unable to speak for 90 minutes.

“Working in this field for years, I have not seen this level of ‘out of it’ for many years. Ninety per cent of those we saw were under 25.”

A good night out shouldn’t have to mean taking a dodgy pill or powder you bought off someone you don’t know’

Councillor Stephen Robinson, leader of Chelmsford City Council, said: “As the father of a teenager, I am fully aware of how isolating the last year or so has been, for young people in particular. It’s great to see social interaction returning and central Chelmsford buzzing once again.

“However, people can’t throw caution to the wind. A good night out shouldn’t have to mean taking a dodgy pill or powder you bought off someone you don’t know. It shouldn’t have to mean drinking so much you don’t know where you are or who you’re with. Please, protect yourself, look out for each other and be careful about the choices you make.

“It’s great that we have fantastic people staffing the SOS Bus in Chelmsford, but I’d like them to be less busy.”

Clare Taylor, national director of operations at Turning Point, a drug misuse rehabilitation charity, said: “The increase in drug related deaths is a public health emergency and should be responded to as such.

“COVID-19 has impacted on the nation’s mental health, but the effect of isolation, financial insecurity and fear has hit many of those who were already vulnerable including people with a history of drug or alcohol problems and some people have not received the support that they needed.

“Every drug or alcohol related death is preventable, and our thoughts are with anyone who has lost someone this way.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter