SNP ministers have been told to implement new standards for drugs treatment “as a national priority” after the annual number of drug deaths soared to the highest on record.
David Liddell, CEO of the Scottish Drugs Forum, has called for the standards which were published by the Scottish Government in May to be rolled out – claiming it would “transform services”.
The plea comes after new statistics from the National Records of Scotland revealed that 1,339 people in Scotland died as a result of drugs misuse in 2020 – a 5% increase from 2019 and the highest annual number since records began in 1996.
£250 million of funding from the Scottish Government has previously been announced to try and halt the crisis over the next five years but has not had an impact on the 2020 statistics.
Of the funding, £4 million will be used to implement the Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) standards, which were published by the Government two months ago.
The standards include all those that need treatment having the option to start a programme from the same day of presentation and that all people will receive support to remain in treatment for as long as requested.
The standards also state that all people at high risk of drug-related harm are “proactively identified and offered support” to begin or continue treatment.
The guidelines add that all those facing drug use and mental health difficulties can receive mental health care at the point of their drug treatment.
The Scottish Government said same day support will start to be rolled out from this autumn with all of the standards in place by April next year.
Mr Liddell said the latest figures “serve as a reminder of our collective failure to support vulnerable people and their families in the moments when they most needed support”.
He added: “Our collective failure to do what needs to be done to prevent people with a drug problem dying through overdose is a national disgrace.
“The evidence for what should be done is clear and unequivocal. While people’s lives are often complicated and challenging, their needs are clear. What works, and what needs to be improved for people in Scotland, is treatment and support.”
Mr Liddel pointed to the new treatment standards.
He said: “These should transform services – not just the processes involved but the whole culture of treatment which should empower people and give them choice and control in their lives.
“These new standards need to be implemented as a national priority.
“To be clear, treatment services will not transform themselves. Change will require investment, leadership and higher expectations from the Scottish public, people who may use treatment services, their families and communities.”
Mr Liddell said that only 35% to 40% of the 58,000 people with a drug problem in Scotland are receiving treatment – while the rate in the rest of the UK is almost double that in Scotland.
He added:” It may be painful to admit but for many people in desperate need, treatment, in too many parts of Scotland, is neither accessible nor acceptable.
“That has to change if we are to deliver on the national mission to reduce drug deaths.”
The Scottish Conservatives have called on the Scottish Government to back their plans to put a legal right to rehab services into legislation.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said the latest set of figures, which takes the total drugs death toll since the SNP came to power to more than 10,000, was “a national shame”.
He added: “We need a united national effort to make the drastic changes necessary to overhaul the broken system.
“The Scottish Conservatives are bringing forward a Right to Recovery Bill to guarantee in law that everyone who needs treatment can get it.
“This proposal has the backing of frontline groups and experts across the political spectrum. SNP MSPs are reportedly on board privately. We only need the Government to wake up, stop stalling and support it.
“The Scottish Parliament passed Covid laws in three days. We can introduce a right to recovery law swiftly if we adopt a similar sense of urgency.
“Overnight, we won’t end this crisis. But we can start on the right path today and take the necessary action now, if the government throws their weight behind this proposal.”
Scotland’s Drugs Policy Minister, Angela Constance, said the statistics were “heartbreaking” and has pledged to look “seriously” at the right to rehab plans.
Ms Constance also stressed her “commitment to continue to do everything we can in the national mission to both save and improve lives and get more of our people into the treatment they need and deserve”.
The minister, who reports directly to Nicola Sturgeon, said she had “never ruled out the need to introduce further legislation” to tackle Scotland’s drugs crisis.
She said when the Conservatives’ Bill was published she would “look at it very seriously”.
But she added: “Meantime, I would argue people already have rights to health care that meets their needs, and what we need to do is ensure people [have] rights to good health, and support and treatment, that that is implemented.
“And that is why for the first time we have committed £100 million to increase the capacity and improve access to residential rehab.”
Ms Constance admitted that “we don’t have enough of our people in treatment, and that is a key priority moving forward”.
She told how new treatments for drug users were being rolled out, including the use of Buvidal – also known as buprenorphine – an alternative to methadone but which is given via weekly or monthly injections, saving people having to visit the pharmacy on a daily basis.
Ms Constance said evidence showed this new treatment “for many people has better clinical outcomes”.
With the figures also showing those in the poorest areas are 18 times more likely to die as a result of drugs than those in the least deprived communities, she stressed the need for drugs services to be better linked to work to tackle poverty.
Ms Constance said: “It is, of course, fair to say that drug use and problematic drug use can affect any family from any part of Scotland, but there is a huge correlation between poverty, deprivation and drug use.
“That means that we need to join at the hip the work to address poverty and inequality with our work on drugs.
“In particular, our work on mental health is really important here, because we know people in poorer communities can have poorer mental health, therefore the work to integrate drug and mental health services is crucially important.”