DRUG deaths remain at an almost record high with 581 fatalities in Scotland last year, new figures show.
That is just three less than the 2011 peak, when deaths rose by a fifth.
Methadone remains the most common feature in fatalities, despite falling from 275 to 237 cases.
Heroin is also a common factor - underlining Scotland’s ongoing opiate addiction problems - up from 206 to 221 fatalities.
Most deaths result from a cocktail of drugs, with several substances found in the body, often including alcohol.
Deaths involving diazepam rose to 160 in 2012, up from 123 the previous year.
The only consolation for drugs chiefs is the continuing fall in deaths among under-25s, reinforcing hopes that younger people are increasingly moving away from problem drug use.
Last year, 46 young people died from drug use, a fifth less than in 2011, and precisely half the 2008 total.
But many older people are vulnerable from years of abuse and addictions that they are unable to conquer.
David Liddell, director of Scottish Drugs Forum, said: “The continued high level of drug related deaths in Scotland highlights the ongoing need to reduce fatalities especially among opiate (heroin) users, who remain - by far - the group most likely to die from drug use in Scotland.
“The high level of deaths among older opiate users – 63 percent of all deaths are among people aged 35 and over – remains a significant concern and re-emphasises the need for services to be more targeted towards the needs of this group of people, who are likely to have a range of complex needs.”
He praised the impact of home overdose kits which have potentially saved the lives of 365 heroin and methadone addicts in the last two years.
A total of 7,391 naloxone kits have now been distributed to families and friends of drug users, which can be injected into muscles to temporarily reverse the effects of opiates, giving paramedics time to reach the patient and save their lives.
Scotland’s government is the only one in the world to distribute the kits centrally, although they are used in other countries.
Meanwhile, a government appointed expert group has said a review should be carried out into the soaring costs of Scotland’s £36 million methadone programme.
The heroin replacement - which costs £100,000 a day - should continue as a treatment for addicts, the Scottish Drugs Strategy Delivery Commission said earlier this month, but more should be done to get users on the road to recovery, including better residential and community rehab programmes.
However, political opponents argue ministers still are not doing enough to tackle Scotland’s drugs problem.
It is not know if drug deaths today are higher than those in the 1980s heroin wave, as comparable figures are not available, but they have doubled since 2000.
Graeme Pearson, Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman, said: “I welcome the fall in deaths related to drugs from the record high we had last year.
“However, 581 people losing their life from drug misuse is appalling, as is the fact that people are combining drugs, including methadone, to create a lethal cocktail.
“The Scottish Government need to tackle this head on with action, not more reports and rhetoric.
“Under the SNP, the health service is struggling to meet demand and drug abuse is adding to the strain.
“Scotland is out of step with other European countries in failing to reduce drug addiction across the country.
“We need leadership from government ministers directing effective action that provides education and support for those involved in drugs and help for the families living alongside addiction. We need it now.”
Roseanna Cunningham, Community Safety Minister, said: “First and foremost, we must recognise that these figures published today represent 581 loved ones lost by friends and families across Scotland and each of these deaths is a tragedy.
“The Scottish Government is dealing with a legacy of drug misuse which stretches back decades and, as in previous years, the statistics published today show that many of these deaths are older drug users who have become increasingly unwell throughout the years.”