SNP ministers are considering whether drug and alcohol addiction treatment could be swept up in ambitious plans to bring forward a publicly-funded National Care Service to stem a rise in avoidable deaths.
Drugs Policy Minister Angela Constance issued an urgent statement to MSPs after new statistics revealed 1,339 people in Scotland died as a result of drug misuse in 2020 – the highest annual number since records began in 1996.
Scotland remains Europe’s drug deaths capital and has a rate three and a half times higher than the whole UK.
The Scottish Government has now ordered an urgent review on the use of so-called street benzos after latest statistics showed the drugs were implicated in 73% of drug-related deaths in 2020.
Addressing MSPs, Ms Constance said Scotland’s record on drug deaths is “as heartbreaking as it is unacceptable”, adding “it’s our national shame”.
She added: “Now more than ever, we need to make sure the experience of those living with problematic drug use are at the very heart of solutions going forward.”
The latest drug deaths statistics show street benzos were linked to 879 of the 1,339 drug deaths in Scotland last year.
Benzodiazepines are usually prescribed for the treatment of anxiety and insomnia but increasingly, illicit supplies of street benzos are being used with opiates such as methadone and heroin.
Ms Constance said: “We also need to know about who is using illicit benzodiazepines or street valium, where they are using this and how they are using this – which is why I am commissioning a rapid evidence review on the use of benzos so that we can take all necessary action to address this.”
The minister pointed to National Care Service plans, to sit as a publicly-funded body alongside the NHS.
She said: “Ministers have agreed to consult on the remits of a National Care Service and whether to include alcohol and drug services in the systematic changes to the way in which people access services.
“In particular, we are asking whether residential rehabilitation could be commissioned on a national basis. Consultation, which opens next week, is an opportunity to consider how we can better support Scotland’s most vulnerable and marginalised people.”
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross called on Ms Constance to “back our bill” drawn up by his party to “guarantee everyone gets the treatment they need” – which would enshrine rehab access in law.
He added: “It’s backed by seven recovery organisations and apparently SNP MSPs. It would cut through a broken system and save lives.”
But Ms Constance told Mr Ross that she was “not remotely interested in playground politics”, adding that it was “imperative” she saw the detail of the plans before backing them.
She added: “Let me be clear once again – I will of course, as will the First Minister, give serious consideration to any proposition. I have never ruled out the need for further legislation as I hope was demonstrated with my comments around a National Care Service.
“I have still to see the bill – so I’m not going to give him a blind or blanket commitment.”
The minister also announced that a new residential rehabilitation facility to support families affected by drug use is to be developed in North Ayrshire.
Funding for the national specialist residential family service, which will be run by the charity and housing association Phoenix Futures and based in Saltcoats, has been agreed in principle. The facility will provide rehabilitation services for 20 families at any one time and will be based on an existing facility run by the organisation in Sheffield.
Once given final approval, funding for the development will be made available from the £100 million announced as part of the national mission to improve and increase the provision of residential rehabilitation.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar pointed to the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon having “cut the budgets for drug and alcohol services”.
Ms Constance said that “it is factually correct to say that in the financial year 2016/17 there was indeed a financial reduction” but stressed “that was compensated for in future years”.
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Alex Cole-Hamilton, warned that “people gripped by drugs misuse are still regularly directed into the criminal justice system”.
He added: “Two hundred people a year are being imprisoned for possession – that’s not changed in a decade. Police rightly say that it’s pointless and it damages lives.”
Mr Cole-Hamilton pointed to a motion by his party in March, backed by SNP MSPs, which supports the principle of looking at decriminalisation for possession of drugs for personal use.
He asked how any plans to look at decriminalisation will be taken forward.
Ms Constance said she has always been clear “this is a public health emergency”, adding “we can’t arrest our way out of a drug deaths crisis”.
She added: “We need to be preventing people going into the criminal justice system in the first place.”
The minister said that in terms of decriminalisation, “this Government has an open mind”.