Bosses of Scotland's drug death task force quit in row with minister over ‘demand for speed’

The chair and deputy chair of Scotland’s drug death task force have quit, reportedly complaining of a “demand for speed” from Government ministers.

Angela Constance, Minister for Drugs Policy
Angela Constance, Minister for Drugs Policy

Professor Catriona Matheson, an expert in substance misuse from Stirling University, and former Police Scotland deputy chief constable Neil Richardson have stepped down from the Scottish Drug Deaths Task Force.

The organisation was set up by the Scottish Government in July 2019 in a bid to curb a rising toll of drug deaths.

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The then public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick described the situation as an an “emergency” and new approaches were needed “even if at first they may be challenging”.

But it ha since emerged that chair Prof Matheson and Mr Richardson stood down after being asked to produce a report on reforms by the summer.

In their resignation letter the pair said: “We have always understood the need for urgency but we feel the current demand for speed is counterproductive and driven by other factors such as meeting targets, rather than achieving the sustainable change evidence shows is more effective.”

Drug deaths in Scotland reached a record high in 2020 at 1,339.

Figures published earlier this month showed that Police Scotland recorded 1,007 deaths believed to be linked to drug use between January and September this year, 40 fewer than the same period in 2020.

Drugs policy minister Angela Constance thanked both Prof Matheson and Mr Richardson for their “hard work and commitment as chair and vice chair of the Drug Deaths Task Force”.

Ms Constance said: “Under their leadership, the task force has done very important work over the last two and a half years and I am grateful for the role it has played in shaping our collective response to reducing drug-related deaths.

“The work of the task force is not done, and I will now speak to the other members and decide how we can best continue their valuable work. I will update parliament on this as soon as possible in the new year.”

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But with Scotland on a “national mission” to tackle drugs deaths, Ms Constance insisted: “It is vital that we accelerate our existing work, and our focus on delivery and implementation.

“Recent quarterly statistics for suspected drug-related deaths showed a slight decrease, but it is clear there is still an urgent need to implement changes that will make a real and tangible difference to people’s lives.”