Last year 584 people died from drug use, which means that drugs now account for one in every 100 deaths in Scotland.
The heroin substitute, methadone, was at the heart of the increase, with almost half of the drugs-related deaths involving the prescription drug.
The figures – the highest death toll since comparable records began in 1996, although it is not known if the number is higher than during the 1980s heroin wave – have sparked calls for a rethink of Scottish drugs policy.
Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said: “This appalling loss of life illustrates the human disaster that is the methadone programme. It would appear hundreds of families are being blighted by what is little more than legalised drug-taking on an industrial scale”.
Experts say one factor in the rise in deaths was that low-purity heroin was sold in Scotland in 2011, and in Glasgow in particular, and that led to addicts supplementing their “hit” with methadone bought from dealers, often with disastrous effects. The market for illegal methadone is largely fuelled by addicts who stockpile NHS supplies and sell them on.
Drugs organisations also believe high unemployment and cuts to benefits have led to an
increase in the number of people turning to drugs and, in a minority of cases, taking an
The greatest increases in deaths were in the age groups 35-44 and 45-54, with decades of drug abuse taking their toll. However, there was a decrease among under-25s.
There was also a sharp increase in deaths among women, although almost three-quarters of victims are male.
Despite the sharp rise in methadone-related deaths – up by more than 50 per cent to 275 – professionals defended the role of the heroin substitute. But they criticised GPs for failing to prescribe a safer alternative,
buprenorphine, more often.
Dr Roy Robertson, chairman of the National Forum on Drug Related Deaths, said: “If you stay on it [methadone] your life improves. People’s weight increases, they become more sociable, their ability to work increases, so it’s a good drug.
“Buprenorphine does not do those things quite as well, but it is safer. It does not appear in as many deaths. But it is something that should be prescribed more, and it might draw in a different group of people who are not prepared to take methadone.”
Four in five victims were not in treatment when they died and if they were taking methadone, were accessing it illegally.
Detective Inspector Tommy Crombie, the national drug
co-ordinator for the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA), said: “Street-level purities of heroin in Scotland are at an all-time low.
“We know that drug users will use other substances, such as benzodizepine and methadone, where there are issues with heroin availability, some of which will be prescribed directly to an individual or obtained illegally.”
There are also fears public criticism of methadone is making addicts increasingly reluctant to use it.
Stephen Molloy, of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said: “People find it hard to engage with services because of the stigma around methadone. .
“We know it saves lives, that’s undeniable. But the pathway a person follows while on methadone therapy depends on other support they are receiving.”
Tom Wood, former deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders and chairman of Action on Alcohol and Drugs in Edinburgh, said: “The vast majority have not died because of what they did the night before, but because of how they lived their lives over the last 20 or 30 years.
“The most important group we have to look at now are the children affected by parental substance abuse, or that generation will suffer.”
As in the 1980s, difficult economic circumstances are leading to more people taking drugs.
Biba Brand, of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said: “Behind each of these statistics there’s a family. We’re talking about parents, partners, children and friends.
“In terms of why deaths happen, we’ve seen a rise in unemployment, changes in benefits around housing, children.”
Drug deaths in 2011 were 76 per cent higher than in 2001. Despite falling numbers in 2009 and 2010, there has been a general upward trend for 15 years.
Greater Glasgow and Clyde has the most, with 33 per cent, following by the Lothians on 13.
Comparing average figures from 2007-11 with 1997-2001, there has been a 117 per cent increase in deaths among women, with men up 85 per cent.
However, there is hope that younger people are turning away from injecting heroin – although not away from cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis and new drugs.
Dr Saket Priyadarshi, vice- chairman of the national forum, said: “One positive thing is the reduction in drug-related deaths among under-25s.”
The Scottish Government has defended its record on drugs
Roseanna Cunningham, community safety minister, said: “No government has done more to address the legacy, and while it will take time to tackle this tragedy, we will do that through continuing to invest and support the recovery of those affected by drugs in Scotland.”