Shocking figures published by the government on Friday revealed 1,339 people had died as a result of drug misuse during the pandemic year, reinforcing the country’s reputation as having the worst drug deaths rate in Europe.
The statistics also showed that three of Scotland’s most deprived areas, which have also been the worst hit by Covid fatalities, topped the grim league table. Glasgow city’s drugs death rate stood at 46.5 per 100,000 people, adding to its Covid death rate of 175 per 100,000. In total the city has lost 1404 people to the twin public health epidemics in 2020.
Meanwhile the de-populated Inverclyde council area lost 33 people to drugs during the pandemic year, putting it second to Glasgow in terms of rates of death at 43 per 100,000 of its population, and it has similarly been badly hit by Covid with a death rate of 169 per 100,000 people. Dundee city was third hardest hit by drug deaths, with its 57 deaths producing a rate of 38 per 100,000, and again with Covid it has seen a death rate in 2020 of 148 per 100,000 citizens.
Overall the figures, which showed a record increase of drugs deaths for the seventh year in a row, painted a stark picture of a link with poverty, with people in the most deprived areas of Scotland 18 times more likely to die from drugs use than in the most affluent.
Nicola Sturgeon and her drugs policy minister Angela Constance said the statistics were “heartbreaking” and a “human tragedy” and pledged to take further action. The government has already said it will spend £250m over the next parliamentary term to tackle the scandal.
However campaigner Annemarie Ward, of drugs organisation FAVOR (Faces And Voices Of Recovery) Scotland, criticised Ms Sturgeon and the Scottish Government as a whole, saying “they keep talking while we keep dying”.
She said: “It is absolutely true that people in the poorest areas of Scotland are suffering the most. But then these people don’t vote, that’s why they’ve been left to rot. They have been abandoned by the Scottish Government and local authorities.
"If this is such a great, forward-thinking country, a brave new place as Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP like to paint it, why is it the poorest people are more than 18 times likely to die from drug use than the richest? I feel as though talk is cheap and I have found it hard to listen to, and believe, the words coming from government ministers in the wake of these figures when they have been warned for years.”
The SNP member, who is working with the Scottish Conservatives to bring forward a Right to Recovery Bill to the Scottish Parliament which would enshrine a right to treatment, particularly rehab, in law, added: “All that is now happening is money is going to the same organisations that it has done for years, organisations which have failed to get people well. They’ve given up trying. If someone goes for help to get off street valium all they are told is not to stop taking it because they will die. There is truth in that, but where is the support, where is the offer of help, of therapy of rehabilition and then support to stay off drugs when you return home? There is none and that is the antithesis of what these services should be doing – but their funding has been cut to the bone.
"And all this talk about nalaxone [an anti-overdose drug for heroin] is no good – it won’t stop someone dying from taking street valium or cocaine.
"The problem is that middle-class people are trying to find solutions to a problem they don’t understand, and they are not talking and listening to those of us who know exactly what it is like.”
Ms Ward, who has been abstinent from addictive substances for 24 years, said she had first turned to alcohol and then drugs at a young age after a traumatic childhood. “It was about taking away mental and emotional pain and for most people on drugs it’s about trauma – it’s not a choice. I managed to get into recovery though and the support I got there helped me deal with the trauma and therefore support and sustain my recovery. That option is no longer there for people.
“The whole system is broken and needs radical reform. We have written the Bill the Tories are taking forward and I hope the SNP will accept it because I have been so disappointed in them.
"Safe consumption rooms are a red herring – people want to take drugs at home, they won’t get on a bus. If they’re going to do this they’ll have to put one in every deprived community, but they won’t. The leadership are completely bereft of ideas and yet they want to shut down the voices of those of us who know what it really takes to recover. We need to change the law.”
Dundee Scottish Labour MSP Michael Marra said the links between poverty and drugs deaths in the city were more acute than anywhere else in Scotland according to work by the Dundee Drug Partnership. “It’s an intolerable situation,” he said. “If this was middle-class people dying at this rate then something would be done rapidly. Instead it’s just been ignored.
“Drugs deaths maybe 18 times worse in poor areas but that is also a statistic which has worsened over the last decade as health inequalities have also worsened. You saw it with Covid too – a rich country such as ours was unprepared for the toll it has taken on the poorest in society.
"Devolution, if it was for anything, it was to sort this stuff.”
His fellow Glasgow Labour MSP Paul Sweeney is planning on bringing a Bill to Parliament to establish safe consumption rooms and said he had seen “first-hand, working with the overdose prevention pilot in Glasgow, the trauma experienced by those with drug dependencies and their families.”
He added: “It's abundantly clear that we cannot continue with the same failed policies of decades gone by – we need radical action and we need it now. That means decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use and the legalisation of safe consumption facilities as a matter of priority.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said a “united national effort” was needed to tackle the “national shame", while Scottish Liberal Democrat leadership hopeful, Alex Cole-Hamilton, said the figures were a “scar on the conscience of this Scottish Government."
During the Holyrood election campaign Nicola Sturgeon admitted that she had taken her “eye off the ball” in relation to drugs deaths, which have now topped more than 10,000 since the SNP was first elected as Scotland’s government in 2007.
On Friday she said: “The number of lives lost to drugs is unacceptable, each one a human tragedy. The Scottish Government does not shirk the responsibility and we are determined to make changes that will save lives. These 2020 figures (though no less shameful because of it) predate actions set out at start of year.
“We now have a dedicated drugs minister in Angela Constance, a substantial funding commitment and action underway, for example, to ensure faster access to community support, treatment and rehab. We will also continue to argue for reform of drugs law, which is not currently within our power.
“Today, my thoughts are with every family who has lost a loved one – I am sorry for the loss you have suffered. However, I know that from the Scottish Government what is required isn’t words, but action to prevent people dying, and that is what we are determined to deliver.”