SCOTLAND’S drug deaths crisis has been labelled “our national shame” after the total number of lives lost since the SNP came to power soared to more than 10,000.
Grim annual statistics published by the National Records of Scotland (NRS) yesterday revealed 1,339 people in Scotland were killed from drug misuse in 2020 – a 5 per cent rise from 2019 and the highest yearly number since records began in 1996.
Scotland continues to have a drug deaths rate more than three-and-a-half times greater than the UK as a whole – with 21.2 deaths per 100,000 people, which is higher than the latest Covid-19 death rate, according to the NRS, of 15 per 100,000 people, as of last month.
The First Minister has promised action after the number of drug deaths in the country rose for the seventh year in a row, with the latest figures showing that those in the most deprived parts of Scotland are 18 times more likely to die from drugs than those in affluent areas.
1. The number of lives lost to drugs is unacceptable, each one a human tragedy. @scotgov does not shirk the responsibility & we are determined to make changes that will save lives. These 2020 figures (though no less shameful because of it) predate actions set out at start of year
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) July 30, 2021
Nicola Sturgeon said her thoughts were with “every family who has lost a loved one” during the crisis”.
She added that “what is required isn’t words, but action to prevent people dying”, stressing “that is what we are determined to deliver”.
£250 million of funding from the Scottish Government has previously been announced to try and stem the crisis over the next five years but has not impacted the 2020 statistics.
Opioids remained the number one cause of drug-related death in Scotland – but fatalities related to cocaine have soared from just 93 in 2015 to 459 last year.
Angela Constance, the Scottish Government’s Drugs Policy Minister, yesterday acknowledged the “heartbreaking” statistics, but was accused by a leading drugs rehab campaigner of “doing the rounds” amid a warning that “talk is cheap”.
Ministers have been told to roll out new treatment standards “as a national priority” amid alarm the rate of those receiving treatment in the rest of UK is almost double that of Scotland.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who is calling on the SNP to back his party’s plans to embed people’s right to rehab treatment in law, said a “united national effort” was needed to tackle the “national shame” – with Scotland maintaining the worst drug deaths rate in Europe.
Calls were made by the Scottish Greens for the UK Government to urgently acknowledge that “the war on drugs has demonstrably failed”, with the party’s health spokeswoman, Gillian Mackay, adding that “it’s long past time we treated this crisis as the public health emergency that it is”.
The UK Government has continued to treat drugs as a criminal matter, despite a 2019 House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee report finding evidence “was overwhelmingly supportive of the public health approach” the Scottish Government and the majority of Holyrood opposition parties would like to explore.
The new data means that Scotland continues to have a drug deaths rate more than three and a half times greater than the UK as a whole and higher than any other European country – with 21.2 deaths per 100,000 of the population.
The number of Scots dying as a result of drugs misuse has increased substantially over the last 20 years – there were four and a half times as many deaths in 2020 as in 2000.
David Liddell, CEO of the Scottish Drugs Forum, has called for new treatment standards which were published by the Scottish Government in May to be rolled out urgently – claiming it would “transform services”.
£4 million of previously-announced funding 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”.
Highlighting the new standards, he added: “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.”
Drug rehab campaigner Annemarie Ward, who is in long-term recovery from addiction, told the Scottish Government “talk is cheap” as she joined others affected by drug deaths to demand change.
Ms Ward and her group Faces And Voices Of Recovery (Favor) UK has backed Scottish Tory proposals to introduce a Right to Recovery Bill enshrining in law the right of Scots to get the drug treatment they request.
Speaking at a memorial in Glasgow yesterday, Ms Ward hit out at a speech made at the event by Ms Constance in which she referenced the Deacon Blue song Dignity and promised to “climb the mountain and turn the tide” of drug deaths, without pledging any specific action.
Ms Ward said: “I think Angela is doing the rounds. She’s talking to a lot of people and listening to a lot of people, but talk is cheap.
“We can talk all day long and people can listen all day long, but unless we start to take action, nothing changes.”
Yesterday’s stark statistics show men were 2.7 times as likely to have a drug-related death than women.
Almost two thirds of all drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2020 were of people aged between 35 and 54. The average age of drug-related deaths has increased from 32 to 43 over the last 20 years.
Greater Glasgow and Clyde had the highest drug-related death rate of all health board areas in Scotland.
Ms Constance was appointed Drugs Policy Minister in December 2020 after the First Minister sacked then public health minister Joe FitzPatrick over the lack of action to tackle the crisis.
Since then, the Scottish Government has announced that £250 million will be spent on addressing the emergency over the next five years – including £100 million on improving and increasing capacity of residential rehabilitation.
Ms Constance said: “Once again, the statistics on drug-related deaths are heart-breaking. I want to offer my sincere condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one through drug use.
“We need to gather as much information as we can about drug use in Scotland and to that end, data on suspected drug deaths will be published quarterly from this September. This will ensure we can react more quickly and effectively to this crisis and identify any emerging trends.
“We are working hard to get more people into the treatment that works for them as quickly as possible. Without treatment, there is little hope of recovery so we are funding as many community and third sector initiatives as we can so that individuals have the widest possible choice and can opt for the support which suits them and their family.”