Scotland's drugs deaths: 'Appalling' new figures show 722 fatalities in six months

More than 720 people have died as a result of drug use in the first half of this year, with Scotland’s drugs minister describing the grim new statistics as “appalling”.

Angela Constance said the figures were "heart-breaking” as she appeared before Holyrood’s health committee on Tuesday to lay out the Scottish Government’s actions on tackling the crisis.

However, her government and the First Minister were accused of being “out of touch” with the reality of drug use in Scotland.

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The new statistics revealed there have been 722 suspected drug deaths so far in Scotland this year, suggesting this year’s final total could be as high as last year’s record number of 1,339 deaths.

Drugs policy minister Angela Constance.

Drug deaths in Scotland have increased for seven years in a row and the country has the worst rate in Europe.

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Scotland's drugs deaths: 'You keep talking, we keep dying'

The latest figures show that for the first six months of 2021, there was a fall of 1 per cent on last year's six-monthly figures, with men accounting for 72 per cent of suspected drug deaths, compared to 76 per cent last year.

Just over two thirds – 69 per cent – of suspected drug deaths were of people aged between 35 and 54. There were 35 suspected drug deaths in the under-25 age group.

The statistics also show the police divisions with the highest numbers of suspected drug deaths were Greater Glasgow with 187 and Lanarkshire with 67. Edinburgh and Tayside both reported 64 deaths.

Publication of the figures comes a day after it was revealed mobile phones given to prisoners during the pandemic, to enable them to remain in touch with loved ones as visiting was cancelled, had been hacked and used for dealing drugs.

Warnings had been raised previously the phones could be used for illicit activities, but former justice minister Humza Yousaf had told Parliament their introduction would be “practical and safe”.

Speaking to MSPs in the wake of the figures being published, Ms Constance said: “The loss of life from drug related deaths is as heart-breaking as it is unacceptable.”

She said the slight fall in deaths compared to the same time last year meant “we can very cautiously take some encouragement” from the statistics.

But Ms Constance added: "I want to stress there is a long way to go here and suspected or actual drugs deaths remain too high in Scotland today.”

She said the number of cases involving methadone or benzodiazepam “has risen” and “we need to understand how this is happening and be able to offer safer alternatives”, claiming the role of GPs would be “absolutely crucial”.

Ms Constance also told MSPs there would be a four-nations drugs meeting in Belfast in October where she would raise the demand for drugs-taking facilities and safe consumption rooms with the UK Government.

However, Scottish Conservative drug policy spokesperson Sue Webber blamed an out-of-touch government for the continuing rise in drugs deaths. The First Minister had earlier this year admitted she had taken her “eye off the ball” on the issue.

Ms Webber said: “These new statistics are heart-breaking. If this appalling trend continues, drug deaths will increase again to another shameful record.

“Scotland’s drug deaths crisis keeps getting worse because Nicola Sturgeon is out of touch with what’s really happening on our streets and in prisons across the country.

“It’s shocking that the SNP Government appears to be clueless that hundreds of taxpayer-funded phones given to prisoners are being used by criminals to deal drugs. Nicola Sturgeon didn’t even know it was happening.”

Ms Webber added: “We need an urgent explanation of how this shambles happened and the SNP must start to prevent drug use in prison by stopping the supply.”

Scottish Labour’s spokesperson for drug policy Claire Baker described the deaths as a “travesty”.

“For years now, figures have been getting worse and the government have been promising action,” she said.

"It is shameful that after all this, we are still not making meaningful progress.

“It’s good to see more regular information being published, but it’s more important that it shows things moving in the right direction.

“We don’t need more expressions of regret from ministers – we need action to save lives. The government must act with the urgency needed.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said every drug death was “preventable”. He said: “It is why there will never be any excuse for Nicola Sturgeon’s choice to ignore the warnings and press ahead with cutting budgets by 22 per cent.

"It surrendered critical expertise and services as this emergency deepened. It cost lives, failed families and will forever be a scar on the conscience of this Scottish Government – one that can’t be healed by apologies.”

He added: "We urgently need specialist drug and alcohol commissions, drawing on international best practice including that from Portugal, and for people caught in possession to be diverted to treatment instead of being propelled towards prison.”

Ms Constance outlined the government’s spending of £250 million, including £100m for residential rehab over five years. She told MSPs she would “follow the evidence on what works and listen to people who are most affected by drugs deaths”.

She added: “Why is our challenge so acute? I have my own views on that – in the past there have been discussions about culture, patterns of drug use, concentrated levels of priority.

"But I would distil the challenge into three areas. We have a higher proportion of people who use drugs, and that’s quite an existential question as to why that is and there’s much research into that, and therefore we have a proportionate number of people with problem drug use – the rate of drug use in Scotland is double that south of the border.

“The other issue is illicit benzodiazepam, an issue across the UK, but more acute in Scotland … [and] we need a cultural change to have a culture of compassion in our services so that people can access services easier.”

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