Scotland's drug death rate hits record levels - among highest in EU

The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland reached a record high of 867 in 2016, a 23 per cent rise on the previous record reported last year.Â
Opiates or opioids were implicated in 765 deaths in Scotland last year. Picture: Julien Behal/PA WireOpiates or opioids were implicated in 765 deaths in Scotland last year. Picture: Julien Behal/PA Wire
Opiates or opioids were implicated in 765 deaths in Scotland last year. Picture: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Official figures published today revealed those aged 35 and over accounted for 72 per cent of drug-related deaths, with those aged 24 and under making up just five per cent of the total.

Scotland’s drug-death rate per head of population is now roughly two-and-a-half times that of the UK as a whole.

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The new figures imply a drug-death rate (relative to population) higher than those reported for all the EU countries.

Ministers, police and drug support workers said the figures emphasised the health implications associated with a legacy of drug misuse stretching back decades.

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“We now face a situation where the majority of those seeking help for a drug problem will be older and will be more vulnerable due to multiple health issues,” said a spokesman for the Scottish Drugs Forum.

“Our research has shown that this most vulnerable group are not held well in services at present. There will have to be concerted effort to change this if we are to save lives and create more opportunities for recovery.”

Males accounted for 68 per cent of drug-related deaths in 2016, while NHS Greater Glasgow (30 per cent) and NHS Lothian (15 per cent) were the two health boards where most fatalities were recorded.

Of the 867 drug-related deaths in 2016, opiates or opioids were implicated in 765 deaths (88 per cent of the total), including heroin and/or morphine in the case of 473 deaths (55 per cent) and methadone in the case of 362 deaths (42 per cent).

Aileen Campbell, minister for public health, said: “I would like to offer my sympathies to anyone affected by the loss of someone who has died as a result of drug use. Each number represents an untimely death and is a tragedy. We are continuing to do all we can to prevent others from experiencing this heartbreak.

“We are dealing with a very complex problem in Scotland - a legacy of drugs misuse stretching back decades. What we are seeing is an ageing group of people who are long term drugs users. They have a pattern of addiction which is very difficult to break, and they have developed other chronic medical conditions as a result of this prolonged drugs use.

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“Unfortunately, there is a general trend of increasing drug-related deaths across the UK and in many other parts of Europe.

“There are no easy solutions but we recognise that more needs to be done. This is why I recently announced a refresh of our drugs strategy in response to the changing landscape we are seeing. This will provide an opportunity to reinvigorate our approach, to respond to the new challenges emerging and to be more innovative in our response to the problems each individual is facing.

“The evidence is clear that one of the most effective methods for stopping people from dying from substance use is for them to be engaged with services. Therefore, our refreshed strategy will include a new ‘Seek, Keep, Treat’ programme which will challenge service providers to adapt their approaches to meet the needs of each drug user.

“Despite the problems we are seeing amongst older drugs users, we must not lose sight of the progress that is being made more widely. Drug taking in the general adult population is falling, drug taking levels among young people remain low, and we’ve achieved significant reductions in treatment times for those needing help with drug problems.”

Miles Briggs, health spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said the Scottish Government must urgently embark on a new drugs strategy.

“People will be stunned that the death rate here is more than twice that of the rest of the UK, and that poses some extremely tough questions for the Scottish Government,” he said.

“For decades now we’ve had a drugs policy that simply parks people on methadone programmes, offering them zero hope of ever beating addiction completely.

“Not only is that methadone leaving vulnerable individuals in limbo, but it’s killing hundreds of people too.

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“We now want a change to get people out of a life of drug and substance addiction.

“Cuts to alcohol and drugs partnerships need to be reversed now, and people need more direct access to physical support.

“A strategy refresh won’t cut it. We need a full parliamentary review of drugs policy in Scotland.”

The facts

men accounted for 68% deaths

38% of the total were people aged between 35 and 44

30% of the fatalities were in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area

the next biggest area was Lothian at 15%

88% of the deaths were related to the taking of opiates or opioids

55% involved heroin and/or morphine

49% were linked to benzodiazepines, for example diazepam and etizolam