Scotland drug deaths: 'Appalling' scale of crisis revealed as more than 100 people die in a month

New figures show Scotland’s “appalling” drugs crisis is “continuing to spiral out of control”, with more than 100 people dying from drug overdoses in just one month.

Scotland’s “appalling” drugs crisis is “continuing to spiral out of control”, according to opposition parties, as figures show more than 100 people died in just one month due to overdoses.

Figures released by Public Health Scotland (PHS) have revealed that between March and May, the number of drug-related attendances at accident-and-emergency (A&E) departments was 13 per cent higher than in the same period last year.

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There was an average of 100 suspected drug deaths per month during the quarter, with a suspected 111 in May alone.

Scotland's drug-deaths rate is far higher than the rest of the UK and Europe (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)Scotland's drug-deaths rate is far higher than the rest of the UK and Europe (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Scotland's drug-deaths rate is far higher than the rest of the UK and Europe (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The figures have been released after Elena Whitham, Scotland’s drugs minister, earlier this month said decriminalisation would reduce the harm of drugs on individuals. A call for devolved powers to decriminalise the use of drugs in Scotland has been opposed by both the Tories and Labour.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said the drug death rate in Scotland “remains unacceptably high” and “every loss of life is a tragedy”.

“While we can be cautiously encouraged by an overall stabilisation in the number of suspected drug deaths, we must not draw too many conclusions from this headline data alone,” the spokesperson said.

“This work is part of a wider surveillance approach being undertaken by PHS. We are focused on supporting those affected by problem substance use, delivering real change on the ground, implementing evidence-based approaches we know can help save lives and ensuring people are getting the treatment that is right for them.

“We are committed to putting people with lived and living experience at the heart of our National Mission, which is supported by £250 million over the course of this Parliament.

“As noted in the PHS report, the suspected drug deaths data is highly variable over time, therefore care should be taken not to interpret movements between individual weeks as indicative of any long-term trend.”

Since 2021, there has been some progress in reducing drug deaths. However, despite a small decrease, the number of deaths a week has remained relatively stable. Between March and July 2021, the average weekly number of suspected drug deaths ranged from 21 to 37 deaths per week.

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There was a sustained drop in the number of deaths per week in August 2021. But between August 2021 and February 2023, the average weekly number of suspected drug deaths fluctuated, but remained within a range of 17 to 29 deaths a week.

For the most recent time period, between February 27 and May 28 this year, an average of 23 suspected drug deaths were recorded a week, ranging between 19 and 29.

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Dr Sandesh Gulhane said the figures were “deeply alarming” and showed Scotland’s “appalling drugs crisis continues to spiral out of control on the SNP’s watch”.

“The sharp rise in the number of drug-related attendances at A&E is a terrifying indicator of the scale of the problem, as well as adding to the strain on Scotland’s already overwhelmed emergency wards,” he said.

“May’s spike in the number of suspected drug deaths comes against a backdrop of Scotland already having – by a huge distance – the worst narcotics fatality rate in Europe.

“We can’t go on accepting a national emergency, without taking meaningful action to address it. Nicola Sturgeon admitted she took her eye off the ball as drug deaths soared, and still SNP ministers fail to grasp the seriousness of the issue.

“It’s time for Humza Yousaf and Co. to stop dithering and finally back the Scottish Conservatives’ game-changing Right to Recovery Bill, rather than flirt with legalising possession.

“Our Bill would enshrine in law the right of everyone to receive the potentially life-saving treatment they need, which is why it has the backing of charities and those with lived experience of drug addiction.

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“The First Minister has issued warm words on Right to Recovery, but it’s time for him to get off the fence and back it, to stem the tragic toll of lost lives that shames Scotland and his Government.”

The average weekly number of drug-related attendances at emergency departments increased between March and May 2023.

A total of 1,081 attendances were recorded in this period – similar to 2021 (1,058) and 13 per cent higher than in the same time period in 2022 (954).

Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said the “eye-opening report” was a “tragic reminder of how much work still needs to be done” to prevent drug deaths in Scotland.

“It has been years since the Scottish Government declared a public health emergency, but progress has been far too slow and far too many lives are still being lost to drugs,” she said.

“We urgently need to improve the support available for those struggling and ensure that people can get the life-saving treatment they need, when they need it.”

Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said the Scottish Government was “woefully behind the curb”.

“Ever since Nicola Sturgeon slashed drug service budgets by more than 20 per cent in 2016, this SNP Government has presided over a public health disaster and drug deaths that are now many times worse than anywhere else in Europe,” he said.

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“This report confirms that the Government is still woefully behind the curve.

“My party has been calling for the decriminalisation of drug misuse for years. If the Scottish Government is at last serious about reform in this area, this will take detailed work both here in Scotland and in partnership with colleagues across the UK and beyond.

“To turn a corner in this crisis, Scottish Liberal Democrats also want to see the immediate introduction of specialist drugs commissions, safe consumption rooms across the country and greater support for staff and services. It’s time to stop people dying.”



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