The number of drug deaths in Scotland has reached the worst level on record.
Figures from the National Records of Scotland show that in 2019, 1,264 people died from drugs misuse – 77 more than in 2018, which is a 6% rise.
It was the largest number ever recorded in Scotland, more than double that of 10 years earlier.
Scotland’s public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick MSP said: “Each and every one of these deaths is a tragedy and I would like to offer my condolences to the family, friends and loved ones of those who have lost their lives.
“The Scottish government is doing everything in its powers to tackle rising drug deaths, and we are working urgently to put in place high-quality, person-centred services for those most at risk.”
In England and Wales, figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in October showed drug deaths in 2019 stood at 4,393. That was equivalent to 76.7 deaths per million. The figure was similar to that in Ireland.
Scotland’s drug problem was declared a public health emergency 18 months ago, in the wake of the rise in death numbers.
The Scottish government, where the Minister for this is Joe FitzPatrick, pictured left, has set up a drugs death taskforce and, while there has since been considerable scrutiny of the problem, it has not yet yielded a solution.
Drugs charities and support groups have criticised a long-term reduction in sufficient funding to tackle the problem. They point out that the drugs problem has been made worse by the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A cross-party group of MSPs suggested that decriminalising drugs, which would allow for their possession for personal use, would reduce the stigma around drug use.
The policy in other European countries showed that it helped treatment programmes. The idea was backed by senior Scottish police officers and the Scottish Government’s drugs taskforce but it was rejected earlier this year by the UK government which has control over the law on drugs.
Campaigners in Scotland, however, argue that the Scottish government does not make appropriate use of its health and social care powers, which give it control over drug treatment services.
Familiar sight in Scotland’s big cities – a drug addict and his dog. Picture by Bill Heaney
The city of Glasgow has long supported the concept of “safe consumption rooms”, which allow users to use their own drugs in safe and hygienic conditions.
Such facilities are used elsewhere around the world but the idea has been rejected by the UK government and so remains on the wrong side of the law.
Police in Glasgow charged a man who uses a van as a mobile consumption room.
Peter Krykant, a drugs activist, operates the facility on the streets of Glasgow, allowing addicts the opportunity to use their own drugs in relatively controlled conditions.
In October, he was charged with obstructing police officers.
The Glasgow drugs van and prescription drugs which are a major problem for addicts.
Responding to the news that 1,264 people died of drug-related deaths in 2019, an increase of 6% and the highest number since records began, Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP stated: “This news is tragic and will make for a difficult day for all those who lost a loved one last year. Lives are being lost on an unprecedented and unparalleled scale, and each of these people deserved better. There was nothing inevitable about their passing.
“Too often services simply aren’t there, either through a lack of resources or a lack of political will. It shouldn’t be left to ordinary people to take matters into their own hands and arrange the care, compassion and treatment others need.
“Scottish Liberal Democrats have been arguing that the existing law is not as black and white as the Scottish and UK Governments would both have us believe. Their policies have failed, but they can each act now. It is time Scotland learned from the lessons of other countries that have taken radical steps to reduce unnecessary and tragic drug-related deaths.
“Scottish Liberal Democrats have set out a clear, practical plan for how to turn this around, including protecting drug and alcohol partnership budgets from a repeat of the Scottish Government’s 20% cut, sending people to treatment instead of prison, and establishing proposals for a Scotland-wide network for the provision of heroin-assisted treatment.”
Scottish LibDem Alex Cole Hamilton and Sir Harry Burns.
The Public Health Scotland publication can be found here.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ 10-point plan for tackling drug and alcohol misuse, submitted to ministers last year but still to be taken forward, calls for:
- A ministerial commitment to protect the budgets of alcohol and drug partnerships for the duration of the strategy, after the Scottish Government implemented a 20% cut to services in 2016/17;
- A ministerial commitment to cease sending people caught in possession of drugs for their own personal use to prison, as happens hundreds of times a year, and instead send them for treatment and education;
- An explanation of why drug treatment and testing orders, which the strategy says “can have a positive impact on both drug use and offending”, were only used 37 times in response to 3,600 convictions for possession in 2017/18;
- Local authorities to make licensing decisions based on venues’ efforts to keep their customers safe, instead of punishing them for incidents on their premises;
- The Scottish Government to back a regulated cannabis market, taking it out of the hands of criminals and tackling trends including increased potency which the strategy describes as “concerning”;
- The Scottish Government to establish proposals for a Scotland-wide network for the provision of heroin-assisted treatment, expanding on preliminary plans for a site in Glasgow;
- Drug-testing to be deployed at localities where there is a need, allowing at risk users to find out what is in a substance and offer advice on harm reduction.
- Adverse childhood experiences to be routinely recorded as recommended by Scottish Government advisor Sir Harry Burns;
- Additional action to address neonatal abstinence syndrome through support for expectant mothers;
- The minimum unit price of alcohol to be raised to 60p to meet the policy’s original ambition and account for inflation in the years that the policy’s implementation was delayed.