Drug deaths Scotland: Deaths spike by 10 per cent as 'swift change' demanded

After a declining trend since 2020, suspected drug deaths soared again in Scotland last year, new figures from Police Scotland have revealed

Humza Yousaf has admitted suspected drug death figures are “deeply worrying” as the number soared by nearly 10 per cent last year, prompting calls for “swift change” to tackle “Scotland’s national shame”.

Police Scotland reported 1,197 suspected drug deaths last year – a sharp increase on the 1,092 recorded in 2022. It reverses what had been a decreasing trend, after a record high 1,411 deaths were recorded in 2020.

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The majority of suspected drug deaths overall were among men (73 per cent), with 66 per cent of the deaths of people aged between 35 and 54.

Drug deaths in Scotland rose again, by 10 per cent last year, new figures released by Police Scotland show. Picture: PADrug deaths in Scotland rose again, by 10 per cent last year, new figures released by Police Scotland show. Picture: PA
Drug deaths in Scotland rose again, by 10 per cent last year, new figures released by Police Scotland show. Picture: PA

The police divisions with the greatest number of suspected drug deaths were Greater Glasgow (303), Lanarkshire (147) and Edinburgh City (118).

Mr Yousaf said: “First and foremost, can I offer my condolences to every single family that's been affected by this. I also acknowledge that they don't just want sympathies and condolences or long words, they want to see action.

"That's why I've continued, as my predecessor had first instigated, that additional funding for the national mission to tackle drug deaths."

He added: "We will work with whoever we need to work with to provide additional residential rehab, for example, to make sure that we get treatment for those who are suffering from substance use.

"What I am committed to do is increasing the funding, but I want to acknowledge that these figures are deeply distressing and concerning and worrying. But I give an absolute assurance ... that we will not waver from our commitment to tackle drug deaths."

Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said the tragic rise in drug-related deaths “was a clear sign that the Government’s policy to tackle the crisis is not working”.

“Scotland remains in the grip of a drug death health emergency with lives being needlessly lost,” Dame Jackie said.

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“Despite the fact that over 5,200 lives have been lost to drugs since a public health emergency was declared, it is shocking that this SNP Government’s budget for 2024/25 froze drug and alcohol spending, which amounts to a real-terms cut.

“The fact is that the most vulnerable Scots are now paying the price of devastating SNP cuts to drug and alcohol services. [Drugs and alcohol policy minister] Christina McKelvie must act where her predecessors failed and deliver a joined-up response across government, including fair funding for rehabilitation and treatment services.”

Dame Jackie said there must be no delay to the Scottish Government’s implementation of a pilot safer drug consumption room in Glasgow, and the provision of drug-testing facilities. The surge in drug deaths reflects an ongoing trend in harmful drug use in Scotland, towards poly drug use and new, synthetic drugs.

Public Health Scotland’s RADAR team, which provides an ‘early warning’ alert system for drug use trends, found opiates and benzodiazepines, which decrease anxiety and slow the central nervous system, were the two most detected drugs in toxicology reports from 2023 – often in conjunction with each other, which amplifies the effects of the drugs and suppresses breathing.

There has also been an upward trend in the use of synthetic opioids.

Scottish Conservative MSP Sue Webber said drug deaths “remain Scotland’s national shame”.

Reflecting Nicola Sturgeon’s admission she “took her eye off the ball” with regards to drug deaths, Ms Webber said: “SNP ministers look to have taken their eye off the ball again with devastating consequences. It should be a source of shame for them that despite Scotland already having by far the worst drug fatality rate in Europe, the number of deaths is on the rise again.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "When 100 people a month are dying in Scotland’s drugs deaths emergency, we need to be open to anything that will save them. Each represents a life cut short and a family torn apart by grief.

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“These numbers are already going in the wrong direction and with the SNP and Greens having pushed through a budget that delivers a real-terms cut to drug services, I am extremely concerned that problems will simply get worse.

“Every tool at our disposal needs to be used to reduce harm and save lives. That includes protecting the drug and alcohol budget, integrated drug checking facilities and preparing now for a network of safe consumption rooms because help can’t just be limited to Glasgow.

“Well-meaning words won’t stop people dying. Humza Yousaf and his Government must deliver swift change and ensure they never take their eye off the ball again.”

Meanwhile, third sector organisations have called for more resources from the Scottish Government to save addicts.

Liam Mehigan, operations director of the Abbeycare Group, which runs a specialist residential rehab and detox service in Erskine, said: “We believe that residential rehab has a key role to play in reducing the number of people dying due to drugs, working alongside other specialist crisis and stabilisation services. This is one of the reasons that we would like the Scottish Government to continue to increase access to rehabilitation services.

“As well as scaling up the number of rehab beds available nationally, the focus should be on quality recovery services with multidisciplinary supports such as nursing, counselling, aftercare and family support as provided by Abbeycare.”

Ms McKelvie said drug deaths in Scotland “are still too high” and “every life lost is a tragedy”.

"I am focused on working across Government, Parliament and beyond, to reduce deaths and improve lives,” she said. “This week, the First Minister and I will hold a round-table on drugs and alcohol to drive forward vital partnership working.”



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